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Farm Your Yard: Backyard Pollinators

The Xerxes Society

A couple of years ago I was harvesting mustard greens at the small urban farm where I work. I like to work steadily and efficiently, but there was something that totally derailed my task that day. Stuck to one of the leaves was a monarch butterfly chrysalis.  Have you ever seen something like that?

They are an example of how extraordinarily beautiful even the smallest details in nature can be. The chrysalis is like this Caribbean Sea turquoise with bright gold flecks speckling the shoulders of the cocoon. I am a bug nerd, so naturally, I was giddy with the find. I took the mustard leaf home and clipped it to a string in my kitchen. Over the course of the next week, I watched as bright blue and gold muted into black, orange, and grey. Once I could identify the wings of the butterfly still inside the cocoon, I knew it was ready.

Gently, I took it back to the farm, and clipped the cocoon in the shade of a trellis for cucumbers. While I missed the actual event of the butterfly popping out of the cocoon, I did stop by long enough to witness the new butterfly getting itself ready to fly away. When I came back, the monarch butterfly was gone, only the clear, crinkly shell of the cocoon was left.

I don’t know how far the butterfly made it in its migration to Mexico, but for the sake of my garden, I hope that it made it long enough to make more monarch caterpillars. Monarch butterflies and honey bees are on lots of folks’ mind right now, as their populations are dropping, which can spell bad things for food production in the future. Honeybees, the workhorses of pollination, along with beetles, flies, and butterflies are the little creatures that turn flowers into fruit.

You want peppers? Raspberries? Peaches? Almost anything else we eat? We need pollinators for that. Even root vegetables like carrots need pollinators, because we would have no carrot seeds to plant if there weren’t beetles and flies pollinating carrot flowers. So, you get the point: bugs are important to gardens, especially bugs that will help turn your tomato flowers into the home grown tomatoes everyone covets in July.

Pollination is totally accidental on the part of the pollinator. The bees, beetles, flies, and sometimes even mammals like lemurs are mostly just trying to get at the sweet nectar that flowers offer. On the way to slurping up that nectar, granules of pollen from the flower get stuck to the pollinator’s body. Then, as the pollinator ambles from one flower to another, that pollen rubs off on other flowers. When the right grain of pollen gets stuck to the right part of a flower, the flower will turn into a fruit, and boom, pollination occurred. 

Around these parts the honeybee is considered the workhorse of pollination, but I’ve got news for you: Honeybees eat like a kid would. Here’s what I mean: picture your backyard garden. Now, let’s say that you have some really nice peas growing in your garden that are flowering profusely. Let’s also say that there is some white clover growing in your lawn, and you just haven’t gotten around to mowing yet, so there are little white clover flowers popping up all over your lawn. To a honey bee, that clover flower is like a piece of chocolate cake, and the pea flowers are more like a dinner salad. Which flower will the bee go to? The clover, duh, cause chocolate, you know trumps everything.

But that doesn’t help you with your peas, because you need the flowers to be pollinated if you are actually going to get any sweet peas. Obviously, your peas will eventually get pollinated and you will get peas, but the point of that thought experiment was to say that honey bees have serious preferences, and will always go to those preferences first. They’re just looking out for number one, and really, who can blame them?

Now, there are other bees who are more willing to visit your garden’s smorgasboard, with little concern about what thing tastes better. They are the less picky pollinators, which I love: like the cute, fuzzy bumblebee.  (Cute, rotund little Bombus, they’re so fuzzy.) But flies, beetles, some moths, butterflies, and wasps are all pollinators too, and the more of them you have in your garden, the more likely pollination is to happen.

People generally fear bees, but they are some of the best pollinators out there. As of late, the plight of the honey bee has been getting lots of public attention, but pollinators across the board are having difficulty living amongst humans. In general, humans have been really good at taking away the habitats and food sources of every single pollinating species. Slowly, we are coming to terms with this and are trying to take actions that support, rather than outright kill our pollinating buddies. There are a few super easy ways to promote pollinator habitat in your own backyard garden.

  • Mow less. What is easier than doing a tedious chore less often? Mowing less frequently and cutting the grass on a high setting helps keep low growing flowers blooming in your yard. This morning in my backyard I have violets, dandelions, chickweed, henbit, dead nettle, and wild strawberry blooming. All of those flowers are important food sources for pollinators. This is especially important at this time of year when there aren’t a ton of flowers blooming yet.

  • Plant native flowers of different colors and bloom times. The longer you have flowers blooming in your garden, and the more diversity you have, the better off your pollinating friends will be. Also letting some of your vegetables flower instead of harvesting every single thing helps provide more food for pollinators.

  • Don’t spray pesticides. Some really harsh systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids are one of the culprits of population collapse amongst pollinators and many other insects. Even if you are spraying organic pesticides like Neem, you need to be super careful about application time, because that will kill all insects, good and bad. In essence, if you choose to use pesticides, be sure to educate yourself on the safest way to apply them. But really, as a backyard gardener, you really don’t need to be spraying pesticides anyway.

Promoting pollinators in your backyard garden is easy to do. And we want to keep eating, being good neighbors to our pollinating friends is imperative. Want to know more about pollinators? Visit the Xerces Society website. They are a national non-profit that support invertebrate conservation. Or come visit me at the Urban Farm, right down the street, I will talk your ear off about pollinators and how to keep them happy in your garden. Because really, the only thing that is scarier than the sting of a honeybee is a world where there aren’t honeybees.

Carrie Hargrove is the Urban Farm Manager for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.

This segment originally aired on KBIA's Thinking Out Loud on April 19, 2016.

Listen for new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday evening at 6:30 on KBIA 91.3FM.

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