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Where Are the Pollinators This Year?

Question:

I have a pollinator friendly garden in Maryland and I see very few pollinators this year. No butterflies. Only bumble bees. Have you noticed the same?

Answer:

Things are not good for pollinators this year in the Northeast.  I have seen relatively few pollinators and virtually no butterflies.  I am getting similar reports from numerous people in various states in the Northeast from Massachusetts to Washington DC.

It’s hard to say exactly what is happening this year, beyond the ongoing insect apocalypse! But, there have been some factors this growing season in the Northeast that may have taken a toll on pollinators. We had a very cold and rainy spring, which wreaks havoc on pollinators, especially early-emerging ones. Although bumble bees are able to fly in chilly and somewhat wet weather, not all pollinators can, and even with bumble bees there is a limit to what they can handle.

The long hot, dry spell that followed during the late spring and early summer may also be partially to blame for the minimal number of pollinators we are seeing. When plants are drought-stressed they often produce fewer flowers, smaller flowers, and flowers with less nectar, or even, no nectar. In response to water stress, nectar flow typically decreases. The ideal condition for nectar flow happens when sufficient, but not excessive, rain occurs, followed by sunny and warm, but not excessively hot weather. That scenario failed to happen for almost a month in the tri-state area of NY, NJ and CT.

When temperatures get extremely hot and dry, bees and butterflies often reduce their flight activity and instead of foraging, seek out shade and/or water.  If you aren’t providing pollinators with a clean, shallow source of water, it’s time to start.  And, consider transitioning part of your sunny garden to a part-shade area with compelling pollinator plants.  Although most butterflies will only forage in sunny areas, this tactic may help some other pollinators.

From observations in my own garden during the recent drought I saw many more native bees foraging in the shade than in the sun – especially on my smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) that I kept well-watered during the recent, prolonged dry spell. Many frenzied bumble bees, visited the fertile flowers of these straight species hydrangeas that are loaded with nectar and pollen.  A welcome oasis for bumble bees in this harsh season.  No doubt that the volume of flowers on these hydrangeas helps these find an obvious foraging target, but I think the fact that the plants are in shade may also be a significant factor during a drought.

Gardeners can’t control droughts, cold rainy springs, or other weather extremes that come with climate change, but we can help pollinators survive by:

– Planting diversely with native, straight species plants.
– Eliminating hybridized plants that may already have limited or inaccessible nectar and pollen.
– Avoiding a nectar dearth by providing a continuous succession of bloom through the entire growing season.
– Planting a combination of flowering native trees, shrubs, perennials and vines.
– Creating larger foraging targets by grouping the same species of plants together (most trees and shrubs already have this advantage).
– Adding pollinator plants to both shady and sunny areas in the garden.
– Keeping plants well-watered during periods of drought.
– Providing a shallow, accessible water source for pollinators (away from the bird baths!).
– Including a puddling area for butterflies.
– Eliminating pesticides!!!

For more help with pollinator gardening, pick up a copy of my new book, The Pollinator Victory Garden: Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening  

From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo: Happy bee in my garden foraging on Hydrangea arborescens (straight species)

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