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It's time for a little pollinator appreciation

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of biweekly columns from the Becker County Master Gardeners, who are part of the University of Minnesota Extension.

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This lakeside pollinator garden features brown-eyed Susans, Shasta daisies, bee balm, swamp milk weed, decorative grasses and dogwood. (Submitted photo)
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Does the term “pollinator” invoke vivid flashbacks from your childhood of a time you were chased down and repeatedly stung in the neck by a vampire bee? Pollinators can be scary, so why would we intentionally invite these stinging creatures to our yards and gardens? I’m so glad you asked!

Simply put, our lives depend on pollinators. Fruits, vegetables, grains or any plant brought to your dining room table is there due to pollination. Wildlife depend on many of these same plant fruits. Pollen must be transferred from male to female flower parts in order to get fruit, nuts or grain and the seeds to ensure a next generation of these plant species.

Wind is a valuable pollinator, but many plant species depend on a more direct transfer of pollen. Insects are extremely important for that direct, physical transfer of pollen.
In Minnesota, the bumblebee is a pollinating superstar. The fuzziness of these black and yellow bees have a great pollen collecting capacity and their buzzing vibrations disperse large volumes of pollen in the process. Bumblebees are quite docile and do not seek out people to sting.

The honey bee is also a well known pollinator, and prized for it’s honey producing talents. We would not have honey without honey bees. Colony collapse has recently been in the news and is seriously threatening our honey bee populations. It is theorized that native wild bee populations might be at risk for the same negative effects due to similar challenges.

There are over 400 types of bees in Minnesota, all contributing to pollination in varying amounts. Some pollinators are specific to certain plants, others prefer a smorgasbord of selections. Butterflies, flies, beetles, caterpillars, hummingbirds and even bats can all pollinate as well.


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The Monarch butterfly, pictured here on a swamp milkweed flower, is one of the more picturesque pollinators native to Minnesota. (Submitted photo)

There is a lengthy list of pollinator species considered endangered or in need of protection in Minnesota. Just as with other animal species, pollinators are affected by the use of pesticides, disease and the destruction of their natural habitats, resulting in dwindling populations.

Creating a pollinator garden is one way we can help to replenish these important insects. You don’t have to dedicate a large area to certain flowers on a list in order to make a difference. Adding a few native species to your regular flower garden is a great start. Planting herbs will benefit both pollinators and your home cooked meals. Growing a wide variety of plants and flowers encourages many different types of pollinators, including beautiful butterflies, while adding to the appeal of your landscape. Aim for a colorful display from early spring all the way to the first frost to extend resource plants for the bees and butterflies and for your own beautiful enjoyment.

Popular choices for a pollinator garden include bee balm, purple coneflower, Joe Pye weed, aster, cosmos, goldenrod, swamp milkweed, and wild roses. Herbs include basil, catmint, lavender, oregano, thyme, rosemary, Russian sage, and spearmint.

Another important thing to remember is the use of insecticides in your yard will not only kill the undesirable insects, like mosquitoes, but will also kill pollinators. If you feel pesticides are a must, the US Environmental Protection Agency strongly urges that gardeners read and follow insecticide labels, which are now designed to better protect pollinators.

Some pollinator advocates like to incorporate logs and other potential nesting sites for bees into their landscape. A family with small children or grandchildren might want to carefully plan or reconsider that option, but it is an important way to aid the pollinator populations if you are so inclined.

If the idea of a pollinator garden sounds like an invitation to relive the terrors of being stung as a child, remember that most pollinator bees are not aggressive. Yellow Jackets, which are technically wasps rather than bees, tend to give bees a bad reputation because they are notorious for insisting you share your hotdog and coleslaw with them or give you an unsuspecting surprise when you drink from your unprotected pop can. They can really ruin an otherwise great picnic! Yellow jackets do pollinate but moreover they are fairly aggressive scavengers. They will be around whether or not you grow flowers. Concern about bees and wasps (unless severe allergies are involved) should not deter you from the rewards of growing a beautiful pollinator garden for your enjoyment and the health of our natural environment.


Sources for this article include:

The Becker County Master Gardener program is operated by the University of Minnesota Extension.

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