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Be kind to bees, build a space for pollinators

Extension advice

POSTED: February 5, 2018 6:00 p.m.
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Ashley Hoppers is UGA Extension Service agent in Liberty County.

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Though we rarely stop to think about it, we are dependent upon the many services provided by insects and the healthy ecosystems that house them. Pollination is one such service. The process occurs when pollen is moved from male to female flower parts and it is required for fruit and seed development in plants.

While conifers and many of the world’s grains are wind-pollinated, many of our favorite fruits and vegetables depend on a "pollinator" to carry out the pollination process. Without insects like bees to visit flowers and aid in pollination, crops like apples, blueberries, kiwis, pumpkins and the many types of squash would disappear.

Can you imagine not having a watermelon on July 4th or a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving?

Indeed, pollinators are vital to agriculture. Would you have guessed that the value of pollination services in Georgia is about $360 million?

Despite their many benefits and natural beauty, celebrated pollinators like the monarch butterfly, bees and many others are in trouble. Over recent years, we have observed sharp declines in pollinator populations.

While there are many factors that are contributing to their decimation, habitat destruction is one of the major causes. Though it may feel like there is little you can do to help, it is easier to help our struggling pollinators than you think.

One thing that you can do this year that will make a positive impact on our pollinator populations is create a pollinator space. To be successful, you will need to learn which plants are beneficial to pollinators and will grow well in your area.

You will also need to select plants that provide nectar for bees and butterflies, as well as the types of plants that provide food for the larval stage (caterpillars) of butterflies. Milkweed, bronze fennel and parsley are all wonderful host plants for butterfly caterpillars.

For nectar plants there are many, many choices. Annuals, such as colorful zinnias, tall sunflowers and hardy cosmos, are easy to grow from seeds. For a more permanent space, try perennials, like button bush and winter honeysuckle.

While selecting the right plants is certainly important, pollinators need more than just flowers to survive. They also need water, bare ground for nesting, shelter and nesting materials. In natural areas, these items are readily available. But in urban and residential areas, these resources are often limited.

Here in coastal Georgia, we live among and enjoy the beauty of the regal live oak. However, those of us that are lucky enough to have mature trees in our yard may suffer from a thinner lawn due to shading. While landscapes with manicured turfgrass and ornamental shrubs are very attractive, they are often not welcoming habitats for pollinators.

Many of our native bees require bare ground for their burrows. So if you have a bare patch in your yard that you just can’t seem to do anything about, don’t fret. Instead of trying to force grass to grow there this year, try incorporating that spot into a pollinator space.

Many beneficial bee species nest underground and are solitary, meaning there is only one bee per nest. Bumblebees, sweat bees, miner bees and cellophane bees are all native bees that nest underground.

Ground-nesting bees prefer soil that is sandy and dry. Leaving drier patches of your landscape bare of plants will provide important nesting habitats for bees that nest underground.

Other bees, such as mason bees, carpenter bees, orchard bees and leafcutter bees, are wood-nesters and ideally use dead tree trunks or "snags" for nesting sites. Leaving dead tree trunks in your landscape is likely not desirable in residential areas, but an artificial habitat can be provided.

Nesting boxes, also called bee condominiums, can be fun and decorative additions to your home landscape. Designs for nesting boxes can be simple or very creative. All that is needed for a nesting box is a piece of untreated wood with holes of various sizes, up to 1/3 of an inch in diameter.

Untreated lumber or unused firewood are good options for nesting boxes. Other nesting materials that can be provided include bundles of soft-centered plant stems, old bamboo stakes or purchased cardboard "bee tubes."

Place nesting materials out in early spring in a sheltered location. Secure nesting boxes so they do not sway in the wind.

Another way to create a pollinator-friendly landscape is to plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Pollinators need pollen and nectar from flowers, but not every flower will be used by pollinators.

Lantana, zinnias, cosmos, bee balm, coneflowers, catmint, salvias, black-eyed Susans and milkweeds are some of the herbaceous plants that will attract pollinators.

Larger plants, such as flowering trees and shrubs, are also beneficial for pollinators. Shrubs that provide pollen and nectar include American beautyberry, glossy abelia, lacecap hydrangea, sweet spire and fragrant tea olive.

Pollinator-friendly trees, such as black locust, chaste tree, sumac, cherry, crabapple, crape myrtle, catalpa, tulip poplar, eastern redbud and red maple can also be incorporated into landscapes.

Home gardeners can also help pollinators thrive in their landscapes by providing them with water. If there are no ponds or streams nearby, add a couple of birdbaths or shallow dishes of water in numerous locations to provide fresh, clean water for pollinators.

Change the water often or unwelcome mosquitoes will use it to lay eggs. Attractive pebbles or marbles can be added to birdbaths to give pollinators a safe spot to land.

Adding food, water, shelter and nesting habitats to developed residential areas will help promote pollinator health.

Follow these tips from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension and keep your eyes open for pollinator visitors. You will likely see honey bees, mason bees, bumble bees, butterflies, hover flies, hummingbirds and many more.

Remember, UGA Extension is calling on you to join our mission to help save pollinators. Many schools, community gardens, businesses and homeowners across the state stepped up to the challenge last year and added pollinator habitat to their gardens.

We are hoping to see many, many more participate in the Pollinator Spaces Project this year. If you would like to learn more about the Pollinator Spaces Project, call us at the Liberty County Extension office at 912-876-2133. We are more than happy to discuss how you can create a pollinator space at your home, business or your community or school garden.

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