Growing Green, A Family Gardening Series: Week 7

In this week's blog: Pollinators

“Who doesn’t like bees?” my daughter asks. “They’re cute and fuzzy and they help us grow fruit.” This is probably going to be a picture-heavy blog post because I agree!

With attention-getting tactics like breakfast cereal companies giving out free wildflower seeds to help the bees and pictures of fuzzy bee behinds poking out of flowers on social media, many people have come to realize how important bees are to our food system. Animal pollinators (bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, ants, and others) pollinate ¾ of the world’s flowering plants and are needed for 1/3 of our food crops to fruit (e.g. blueberries, almonds) or produce seed (e.g. onions, broccoli). In my garden, the apples, cherries, raspberries, and squash family vegetables all rely on bees. 

Younger kids can learn all about bees from this video with real, not cartoon, bees: 

Bee, Animals for Kids by All Things Animal TV

Bees are threatened by a number of factors, some of which combine to weaken them: disease and parasites, habitat/food loss due to industrial agriculture’s monocrops and urban growth, pesticides and pollutants. Can an urban gardener play a role in saving the bees?

The first thing to do is to supply a variety of pollinator food. I have a confession. When I first started gardening as an adult, I thought that growing flowers was a waste of space. I only planted vegetables. Then I learned more about ecology and realized that for everything growing in my yard (plants and animals) to flourish, I needed diversity. I have attempted to make my yard appealing and nurturing from spring until fall, providing a progression and variety of blooms. There are many types of bees and some specialize in or prefer certain flowers for colour or access to nectar. For example, leafcutter bees are essential for pollinating commercial alfalfa, and also use the leaves of certain plants for their nests. I’ve found they love using my raspberry leaves for nesting materials, and I always look for signs of them in the spring.

Haskap and daffodils are the earliest flowering plants in my yard for the bees that first come out of hibernation, succeeded by cherries and apples. Pollinators love the clover and thyme that make up much of my lawn and flower for a long time in the summer, needing little water. I also let my cilantro go to seed because bees love the flowers. Coneflowers provide food for pollinators until the late fall, and bee balm (as you might guess by the name) is particularly appealing to bumblebees. I have also planted milkweed to feed monarch butterflies but so far haven’t had any visitations. 

You can also provide water for bees – shallow birdbaths or containers with perches. They also have different types of nesting requirements. You can ensure your yard has things like decaying wood and bare dirt for ground/hole dwelling bees, and don’t get rid of your hollow raspberry canes until spring as some bees will nest inside.

Not all plants rely on pollinators; some such as tomatoes, beans, and peppers are self-pollinating, meaning their flowers have both male and female parts, and the pollen falls in the flower and pollinates itself. However, bees can increase these plants’ pollination, producing a higher number of fruits. Other plants (such as corn) are primarily wind-pollinated. I have hand-pollinated large flowers like zucchini just to make certain of having fruit, but it is wise to try to attract bees to your yard even if you focus on vegetables.

Help older kids understand the importance of biodiversity.

“What is Biodiversity” by The World Wildlife Federation

There are certainly many ways humans benefit, from mangrove swamps that protect coasts from hurricanes to native grasses that are champions to sequestering carbon to medicines provided by nature. You can also think about how all species contribute to functioning ecosystems and benefit from biodiversity that contributes to variety and resilience, regardless of their actual or potential use to humans. Diversity in your yard that supports pollinators as part of a healthy ecosystem can provide benefits and beauty. Diversity is strength.

Naomi Beingessner has lived and gardened in the Prairies for most of her life. She has two children, an enthusiastic gardener and an enthusiastic eater. She was a high school teacher and is now back in university studying food sovereignty. Her favourite vegetable is green beans but she finds that the most significant taste difference between store-bought and home-grown is in tomatoes.