Looking out for native pollinators

There are several ways that backyard gardeners can support native pollinators.
A European honeybee lands on one of the flowers in the Winters Community Library Teaching Garden. The garden was designed with flowering plants and native pollinators in mind. Emma Johnson/Winters Express

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Native pollinators were the subject of the second gardening workshop presented by the UC Master Gardeners of Yolo County at the Winters Community Library. The class, which took place on Saturday, Oct. 5, focused on the many types of pollinators that can be found in Yolo County and the gardening practices that support them. When the lecture concluded the class visited the library’s Teaching Garden, which was full of blooming plants and busy pollinators.

Master Gardener Susan Moore began the class with a presentation that highlighted how plants and animals alike depend on pollinators as an integral facet of a functioning ecosystem. Over 75 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators, and those pollinating insects are an important link in the food chain. In North America, 96 percent of terrestrial birds raise their young on insects.

When pollinators are threatened, the entire ecosystem can suffer. Loss of habitat, disease, climate change and overuse of pesticides can all be contributing factors in pollinator population decline. On a large scale, this decline can lead to not only fewer food options, but less food in general.

One of the ways to combat pollinator decline is to plant a diverse garden with varied bloom schedules. Moore provided the class with a list of California natives that support pollinators throughout the year. Plants like manzanita bloom from late winter to early spring and support bees and hummingbirds. California lilac also blooms from late winter to early spring, and Moore says that it is not uncommon to see the blooms swarming with bees.

There are around 1600 species of native bees in California, and they can be some of the most efficient pollinators. Other insects serve an important role as accidental pollinators. Wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths are not adapted to collecting pollen like a bee, but they still transfer pollen while eating nectar.

Butterflies might be both a boon and a burden to a garden. These accidental pollinators rely on flowering plants to provide nectar and host their larvae. This means that a sign of a healthy butterfly population might mean seeing leaves with a few caterpillar-related bite marks.

Some of these pollinators can also help the backyard gardener with pest control. Syrphid flies and lady bug beetles both eat aphids, a common garden pest. Moore recommends that people who want to release store-bought ladybugs in their garden should purchase them in spring and lay them out towards the end of the day, when the weather is cooler. This will make them more likely to stay long enough to lay their larva.

Relying on pollinators for pest control also reduces the use of pesticides, which can be harmful to pollinating insects. Moore recommends avoiding the use of pesticides altogether and only using horticultural oil or insecticidal soap sparingly.

Providing pollinator habitat

Another way to promote pollinators is to support their habitat. In the winter this could mean leaving a patch of the garden a little messy, as insect pollinators can benefit from native weeds like cheeseweed, mustard, plantain and vetch.

Other forms of shelter could include dead wood for burrowing bees and uncovered ground for nesting bees. Bee boxes could be used by cavity dwelling bees like the mason and leaf cutter bees.

Pollinators also need a water source, which can be as easy to provide as leaving the hose running on the ground for just long enough to create a mud puddle. Insects could also use a bird bath, made shallow with flat stones or pebbles for easy landing.

The Master Gardeners next free gardening class at the Winters Community Library will be held on Saturday, Nov. 2, and will cover fruit tree care and pruning.

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