Feeding the Pollinators
In order to encourage any native populations to grow, you must supply all the requirements for a full life cycle; namely, reproduction and feeding. We have already discussed creation of nesting sites and pollinator friendly hedgerows. Now we need to focus on feeding requirements and integration of feeding sites with breeding sites.
First we need to understand some basic bee behavior and anatomy in order to maximize feeding potential to the most number of bees and as many bee species as possible. When foraging for food, most bees search for nectar and pollen. How bees can access their food is dependent on the length of their tongues. Anatomically, there are 2 classes of bees – short and long tongued bees. Short tongued bees can only harvest from open shaped flowers, such as asters. Long tongued bees can harvest from deep and complex shaped flowers, such as lupines. Behaviorally, bees are also separated into 2 general feeding classes. Generalists and specialists. Generalists will forage from a wide range of flowers while the specialists visit very specific species of plants.
One of the most effective ways to increase local pollinator numbers is increase the flowers available to them. Consider removing grassy, weedy, or invasive vegetation in non cropped areas and planting them to native flowers and trees. To attract a diverse range of bees consider planting a diversity of plants. Consider the following : Flowers range in shape from open and shallow to deep and complex, different colors and heights and overlapping bloom times. Studies have shown that as few as 10 carefully chosen plants can provide excellent feeding habitat and will increase pollinator diversity. How much plant diversity is enough? Pollinator diversity will continue to increase with increases in plant diversity, so the sky is truly your limit. I truly want to emphasize that a significant part of your plantings should be native wildflowers.
Why? First of all, let’s consider the plants themselves. By selecting from a variety of local native wildflowers you are using plants that are adapted to our local climatic conditions and soils. Once established, they should be low maintenance. Also, intimate relationships have developed, over thousands of years, between native pollinators and native plant. These relationships are undeniable. Surprisingly, a handful of seed dealers in Ontario are offering wildflower meadow mixtures that are quite good.
From here I will offer controversial ideas for traditional agricultural practices. We will be applying these, over time, here at Bee Sweet Nature Co., and experimenting with different locations and crop mixtures.
Cover crops are traditionally grown to improve erosion control and soil permeability, fixing nitrogen and discouraging weeds. There are, now, cover crop ‘cocktails’ for pollinators. These cover crops incorporate everything we have discussed – many flowering types, extended blooming times and a wide variety of flower shapes and types. These cocktails are utilizing plants with very high bee appeal. A mixture might have have the following – Phacelia, crimson clover, radish, hairy vetch, field pea, turnip, fava bean, rye and oats. A note of caution. There are limitations to cover crops. They can provide significant supplies of pollen and nectar but since these crops tend to be non native mixtures, their attractiveness can be highly variable to our native bees. In general, most bees attracted to cover crops tend to be species that are already relatively common. Less common native bees often require plant communities composed primarily of native plant species.
So what am I trying to say? Let’s try to apply cover crops to marginal soil sites and use them to farm for pollinators. Select a cocktail cover crop for pollinators and allow it to bloom and die in place. Allow the dead plant material to persist the winter on the soil surface allowing for imperative winter protection for all beneficial insects.
Let’s integrate all the information to make some sense. Priority is towards planting native local wildflowers. In fact, this is the backbone principle to feeding pollinators. There must be a significant planting of native plants to encourage native bees. Having said that, I do see value in cover crops. Between native plants and cover crops I see a synergy happening. An additive feeding value benefiting all pollinators. Of course, you could create a native mixed cover crop but these mixes are almost non existent to find in Ontario with our seed dealers.
As a last word, don’t forget that the location of your planting site is critical. It has to be within flight range of our bees and the ideal distance is no more than 0.5 miles.