Bees and other pollinators offer numerous benefits to your farm’s ecosystem. They’re likely already living there, but here are a number of steps you can take to help them thrive.
Who’s buzzing on your farm? Chances are, if it has some natural areas, fence rows or garden-type plantings, it’s home to possibly hundreds of species of wild bees (beyond the non-native honey bee), as well as butterflies, moths, beetles and hummingbirds. All these pollinators are visiting flowers for food, then incidentally moving pollen from plant to plant, thus ensuring the plant’s production of seeds and fruit.
Pollinators such as honey bees, bumble bees and monarch butterflies have gained attention in recent years due to concerns about declining populations. Fortunately, everyone who manages land of any scale – from a community garden plot to large expanses of farmland – can take steps to support these and other pollinators.
Why are pollinators important?
Pollinators are essential to the food we eat, including most fruits and vegetables but also foods like coffee and chocolate. In addition to their role on farms and gardens, pollinators are essential to the survival of native plants by transferring pollen and allowing plants to produce seeds. Pollinators are vital to the food web by ensuring the production of seeds and fruits eaten by countless animals in nature. And of course, all these pollinators are food for birds, mammals and other wildlife.
Bees are considered the most important pollinators because they are uniquely adapted to gather and transport pollen. Bees rely on flowers for pollen to feed their young, so they actively seek out and visit flowers. Bees also forage for food close to their nesting sites, a practice called central place foraging. This makes nesting habitat on the farm especially important; bees nesting close by can easily visit crops like canola, berries or apples in need of pollination services.
Pollinators, bees in particular, are currently facing many threats, such as lack of forage (flowers for food), pests, pathogens, pesticides, invasive plants, climate change and lack of suitable nesting sites. Farmers and land managers can play an important role in pollinator conservation by providing plants and nesting sites and by adapting some management practices to protect pollinators.
Pollinators, bees in particular, are currently facing many threats, such as lack of forage (flowers for food), pests, pathogens, pesticides, invasive plants, climate change and lack of suitable nesting sites.
1. Grow more flowers
Trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants can all provide food and nesting habitat for pollinators. An abundance of different flowers that bloom across the growing year, from early spring through late fall, will appeal to a variety of pollinators. Different species of bees, butterflies and other pollinators are active at different times of the year. Early-blooming trees such as maples, willows and redbuds, and late-season perennials like asters and goldenrod, provide important food at especially critical times.
By including many different flower sizes, colors and shapes, many different pollinators will be attracted to the farm. For example, red tubular flowers with a nectar reward tend to attract hummingbirds. Daisy-like flowers that provide nectar and pollen in shallow flowers are often visited by bees and flies with shorter mouthparts. Grouping plants together in the garden or in fence rows helps pollinators find and feed on desirable flowers while expending less energy in the search of plants.
Some cultivars and hybrids – such as roses with “double” petals or purple coneflowers with tufted petals and muted colors – may not offer the pollen and nectar rewards that “straight species” do, since the quality and quantity of nectar and pollen are sometimes lost during breeding. Plants bred with “double” flower petals are often inaccessible to pollinators who may use the now-covered yellow anthers as a way to locate the flower. Include less-refined plants along with horticultural selections to offer broad pollinator appeal. By watching flowers in the garden and taking note of any flower visitors, observers can learn which ones are most attractive to pollinators.
By watching flowers in the garden and taking note of any flower visitors, observers can learn which ones are most attractive to pollinators.
Consider adding more locally native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in fence rows, along field borders and in other locations on the farm. Locally native plants offer nectar, pollen and other nutrients in quantities that native pollinators need.
2. Provide nesting sites
Brush piles, dead standing trees and clumping grasses all provide important nesting and overwintering habitat for bees and butterflies. Cavity-nesting bees make their nests in the pith of twigs like elderberry or sumac, or in abandoned beetle burrows in dead trees. Artificial nesting sites can be made or purchased to encourage cavity-nesting bees. These structures require routine maintenance to prevent the build-up of bee pathogens and parasites.
Solitary ground-nesting bees usually nest in sandy, well-drained soils on south-facing slopes, or sometimes on unpaved farm roads or paths. Solitary bees are very docile and rarely sting, in contrast to social ground-nesting wasps like yellow jackets. They are usually active for a few short weeks each year.
Bumble bees prefer to nest in pre-existing cavities such as old rodent nests or cavities in rock walls or cliffs, both above and below ground. They will also nest under clumps of bunch grasses or in forgotten bales of hay or straw. Large bumble bees flying in early spring are queens in search of nesting sites. Protect sites from disturbance where bumble bees might be nesting.
By selecting pollinator-friendly plants and following a few easy management practices (see sidebar above), your farm can come alive with bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
For more information on supporting pollinators on your farm, visit the following websites:
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, xerces.org
Pollinator Partnership, pollinator.org
The Ohio State University Bee Lab, beelab.osu.edu