As gardeners, we tend to think in terms of outcome, working to create an abundance of nourishing food, beauty, color, fragrance, liveliness, or serenity. We give to the garden in the form of compost, amendments, time, and water in order to receive again. It is a well-practiced agreement, one that stretches deeper into our history than written language. Underlying that bargain, or perhaps punctuating it, is the clause of partnership.
Numerous are the hazards that await a newly sprouted seed. As all creatures of the earth, it must struggle and endure, fitted with a biology prepared for some of the hardships that may come. Even so, destinies are not always attained, and those that are owe their victory, in part, to the efforts of others.
Pollinators seem the perfect metaphor for the everyman: one vote is all she gets, one voice of action. And while the pollinator is rarely glamorous or exceptional, his collective work has great influence. From the perspective of our species alone, pollinators are vital to our food supply—75% of food crops rely on pollinators for fertilization, while 100% benefit from the efforts of predatory or parasitic insects.
Known as ‘beneficial insects,’ these myriad species invisibly protect our fields and gardens. Syrphid flies, a fly in bee costume also known as a hover fly, snacks on pollen and nectar as an adult and hatches larvae that eat aphids, thrips, and other soft-bodied plant pests. Ladybeetle larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids, which the adults maintain at a slower but steady pace. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs on sap-sucking insect bodies that their larvae parasitize, eating the insides as they grow, leaving behind empty aphid husks as they pupate.
Such humble work is invaluable to any gardener, especially one wishing to avoid chemical pesticides. And for those that desire their trees to bow with branches heavy in fruit, for their squash patch to proliferate, or their berry harvests to boom, pollinators are irreplaceable partners. Diversity of pollinators means more bodies carrying pollen around the garden or field, and translates to increased yields of higher quality fruits.
Outside our cultivated spaces, the same results apply. Although we tend to think of honeybees when we talk nectar and pollen, native insects account for 80% or more of a given area’s total pollination. Honeybees, an introduced species, are useful for their colonizing habits. We can keep them in controlled hives and transport them from field to field in the orchestrated pollination of large crops. But in our gardens and natural areas, native pollinators do the lion’s share of the work, maintaining production as they maintain plant species diversity.
This arrangement reveals a compelling law of attraction. The equation is simple: what you give to eventually wants to give back. To nurture those who nurture you is a smart move on the evolutionary scale, one to which we have given a name and that we carry on in our own human terms: kindness.
Entering this positive feedback loop and being kind to your pollinators means planting the food they are accustomed to and providing the habitat the need. Many native bees nest in the soil, so leaving some undisturbed ground and plant debris (think sticks and leaves) means protecting nests. Native insects have evolved to eat native plant nectar and pollen; growing these species in clusters large enough to be noticed will attract native pollinators into your garden. Keep in mind that native pollinators are active all but the coldest months of the year; providing blooms spring through fall means feeding a diverse range of species with different hatching times.
There are many online resources from which to learn more about serving native insects by adjusting your gardening practices. A good place to start is the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org), a local organization that performs research, writes books and free publications (including plant lists and tips for gardeners), and advocates for these necessary species.
Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.