Gardeners can help keep pollinators healthy

University Park, Pa. -- Despite widely published reports, many people are unaware that bees -- both managed colonies of honeybees and wild bees alike -- are in trouble due to Colony Collapse Disorder and other environmental factors.

Research shows that wild honeybee populations have dropped 25 percent since 1990, and more than 50 pollinator species are threatened or endangered. Planting a pollinator-friendly garden may be one of the best ways to help these beneficial insects, say experts in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Because landscapes have been extremely fragmented due to urbanization, suburbanization and development, we would like to have homeowners and gardeners rethink their space," said Ginger Pryor, state coordinator of the Penn State Extension's Master Gardener Program.

"People typically include grass, non-native plants, and a few trees and shrubs that are not very pollinator friendly," she said. "People need to learn how to establish plantings that will help keep pollinators around."

Pryor suggested the following tips to get you started on your own pollinator-friendly garden:

-- Choose species of plants that are native to Pennsylvania. "Our insects have evolved with our native plants and are four times more likely to be attracted to them," she said.

-- Plant species that bloom from early spring to late fall. Having a variety of plants with different shapes and colors will attract an assortment of pollinators. Most species of pollinator-friendly plants need a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day.

-- Avoid invasive plant species, as they will compete with pollinator plants.

-- Provide a water source. "Water sources such as shallow birdbaths, mud puddles or even just a small saucer with sand and rocks to supply pollinators with necessary water and minerals are acceptable," Pryor said.

-- Wait out the winter before doing any garden cleanup. "Leave dead plant stalks in the garden through winter because these materials are home to hibernating insects," she explained.

-- Maintain the garden with pollinators in mind. Minimize or reduce pesticide use as much as possible. "Make sure to read labels carefully and select the least-toxic materials," she said. "Apply after dusk when most pollinators are no longer active."

Molly Sturniolo, Master Gardener coordinator in Centre County, said pollinators promote the survival of 75 percent of the world's flowering species and are responsible for one out of every three bites of food consumers eat.

"More than 180,000 flowering plant species rely on insects, birds and mammals for pollination," she said.

Sturniolo said Master Gardeners have a responsibility to inform the public about the plight of pollinators. "We feel like we're the first line of citizen scientists. I can't tell you how much we've learned about bees and the peril they're in, and all the outreach we've done."

Pryor agreed that people need to plant these gardens because our own food sources depend on the work of pollinators.

"We need to be conscious of providing pollinators food, because they are slowly becoming unhealthy and disappearing," she said. "If our pollinators disappear, then our food disappears."

The Penn State Master Gardener Pollinator Friendly Gardening Program offers educational workshops and demonstration gardens around the state to help get gardeners started. Gardeners also can certify their garden as "pollinator-friendly" online through the Master Gardener's website .

For more information about pollinator-friendly gardening and the Master Gardener program, contact your county Penn State Cooperative Extension office (find your local office online at Extension's website.

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Last Updated July 11, 2011