WALLINGFORD – When it comes to optimal pollination in gardens and backyards, the combination is really simple, according to Dr. Emily Fontenot.
An industrial training programmer for Iowa Lakes Community College, in Spirit Lake, Fontenot said people should protect natural habitats for bugs and bees, including by not mowing grass too short so helpful bugs can hide or overwinter.
They should also plant to attract good bugs and bees and try to avoid spraying if possible.
According to Fontenot, if spraying must be done, it should be done after winds have gone down.
“Doing these things will attract good bugs – not bugs that hurt your garden,” said Fontenot. “Doing things that are natural will keep (the bug balance) in check.”
The goal is to not have too many bad bugs or too many good bugs.
Fontenot said gardens often contain artificial systems – being planted in rows and plowed under when they’re done, and with spaces that are not natural. She said that’s also when bug problems are likely to occur.
“If garden bugs come to be a problem, your (garden plants) are bringing those (bad) bugs to the garden,” she said, adding that gardens are actually helped by many kinds of bugs. “Some non-chemical options to keep those (bad) bugs away include mulching and inter-planting plants that keep bugs away – such as garlic planted sporadically throughout the garden.”
Fontenot said good bugs and bees are helpful tools in organic gardening as well.
Gunnar Johnson, Emmet County naturalist, said the numbers of bees and monarch butterflies – two important pollinators – are dropping, so attracting them has become a focus for naturalists and backyard gardeners.
He said monarch butterflies used to migrate by the millions. Today they only migrate by the thousands. He said this could be a serious problem, interrupting the natural pollination process.
For monarch butterflies, he said it comes down to the absence of milkweeds in fields and along fence lines. Milkweeds are a monarch butterfly’s main go-to food and the plant on which they lay their larvae and live in cocoons, eventually turning into butterflies.
“A lot of people think milkweeds are good for nothing, but they’re actually really important for monarchs,” Johnson said. “They’re also good for pheasants, who eat a lot of butterflies and bugs. More monarchs will increase pollination and increase our pheasant population.”
He added bees are seen more as a nuisance instead of a helpful insect, so when people see them they tend to exterminate them.
Pollination in agriculture is done primarily through wind, according to Johnson, but it’s a different ball game when it comes to small-scale pollination in backyards and home gardens.
That’s where “bug hotels” come into the picture. These are places where bugs and bees can live safely and overwinter.
“Bug hotels are a great way to attract a variety of pollinators that are attracted to more different kinds of plants,” Johnson said, “so it can diversify which bugs pollinate which plant, which can actually give you better success of having all of your plants pollinate.”
Johnson said care is necessary with placement of bug hotels so they aren’t in an area where mice and birds can get to them. He suggested placing them high enough so ground life can’t get to them, but not to hang them in a place where winds will rock them back and forth.
He also recommended mounting bug hotels close to the garden or close to raspberry bushes and flowers because it’s important that the bugs and bees that will be living there be close to the plants they will be pollinating.
Fontenot added any cavity-nesting or ground-nesting native bees and bugs are good for gardens. The bug hotels they made at the workshop were for cavity-nesting bees.
She said plants good for attracting helpful bumble bees might be a thicket plant – wild plum – along with honeysuckle, bergemont, hyssop, prairie onions, columbine, clover, black-eyed Susans and milkweed.
Other plants that attract bumble bees include wild geraniums, Jacob’s ladder and Solomon’s seal. Native grasses also provide cover and include grasses such as big blue stem, Indian grass and turkey’s foot.
Fontenot said it has become popular to plant to attract pollinators and to make bug hotels to give them places to live.
“You’re creating an ecosystem when you do this,” she said. “You’ll also bring in other bugs and birds, too, so you would need to expect extra insect activity. But it all balances out if you give it time.”
Johnson said bug hotels and helpful native flowers and grasses that attract pollinators will also bring more bird activity- in some cases, song birds.
“(All of this) really brings in a lot of cool nature to backyards,” he said.
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