Plotting to Attract Pollinators

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Pollinator Habitats

If you ate today, you might want to thank a pollinator. From bees to butterflies to birds, pollinators are directly responsible for one out of every three bites of food we consume. They also facilitate the reproduction of roughly 80 percent of all flowering plants, including trees. In fact, pollinators contribute an estimated $217 billion to the global economy, supporting food and fiber production, clean air, and stable soil. These tiny creatures play a huge and vital role in sustaining the ecosystems on which life on earth depends.

But native pollinator habitat has been disappearing, and as a result, their populations are on the decline. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) is working with N.C. State University to remedy the situation by establishing dedicated pollinator plots at all 18 agricultural research stations throughout the state. Project leaders hope homeowners and farmers will follow suit and aspire to grow pollinator habitat on their own property.

“A lot of the native pollinators have lost habitat due to people building houses, building developments and erosion of land,” says NCDA&CS’s Kelly Snider, who oversees the pollinator plots. “Each station is putting in multiple small garden areas full of native plants for pollinators. One of the things we’re looking at is what plants we need to put out when. If you have something blooming all the time, you’ll have plenty of activity there and a source of nectar for the native pollinators.”

In addition to managed honeybees, North Carolina is home to thousands of pollinator species, including ground- and wood-dwelling native bees that can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than honeybees. Native pollinators also include butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and even bats.

Pollinator Habitats

Dr. David Tarpy, a professor of entomology at N.C. State, plans to begin population studies at the research station plots during the 2016 growing season. “He’s wanting to ask the questions any scientist would ask,” Snider says. “How effective are our habitats? Are we increasing populations? Is it helping one species and not another species? And so on. So in 2016, we’re going to take samples at each of the gardens across the state.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Danesha Seth Carley, an assistant professor of horticultural science at N.C. State, helps with selection and management of the flowers, trees and plants grown in the pollinator plots. She offers the following advice to homeowners on adding pollinator habitat to their landscaping:

“You can attract butterflies and other insect pollinators to your yard or garden by growing plants that are attractive to both humans and pollinators. You do not need a formal garden in order to include plants that will attract and support pollinators; even small patches of plants can help,” Carley says. “When choosing plants for your pollinator habitat, it is always best to aim for plant diversity. Consider that the bees and butterflies you want to attract need either food or habitat year round. By including a variety of blooming herbs, trees, shrubs, vines, as well as annuals and perennials in your garden, you will not only attract native pollinators, but also provide a year-round place to thrive.”

Carley emphasizes avoiding invasive non-native plant species such as bamboo, Chinese wisteria and Bradford pear, as they can cause significant damage to native habitats. She also stresses maintaining plant health by placing plants in the correct location, considering their drought tolerance, soil preference, and need for full sun or shade.

One of the simplest ways to provide pollinator habitat is simply to scatter wildflower seeds in an area you can leave unmowed, Snider adds.

Pollinator Habitats

As the project continues, the research stations will refine recommendations as to which plants best support native pollinators. In the meantime, the pollinator plots are being incorporated into tours of the research stations, which welcome about 10,000 visitors each year. A beautiful demonstration pollinator garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro, planted and maintained by Chatham County Extension Agent Debbie Roos and her crew of volunteers, is also worth seeing.

“The ultimate goal of this habitat program from the research station standpoint is to show agriculture producers and land- and homeowners across the state how they can intentionally create some biodiversity in their land management plan to improve habitats for native pollinators,” Snider says. “Hopefully by increasing the native pollinator population, we can also increase the yield of the horticulture crops that are dependent on pollination.”

– Carol Cowan

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