The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Flower-rich foraging habitat for native bees

Farming with pollinators

Native pollinators have three main requirements --- flowers, nesting sites, and overwintering habitat.  We'll cover the other two in later posts, but for now I want to talk about flowers for wild bees.
Wild bee on buckwheat
Attracting Native Pollinators takes a holistic approach to providing forage for wild pollinators.  Rather than listing a few key plants, they recommend that you create open, sunny patches of flowers that bloom throughout the entire growing season.  The best patches are big and round --- at least three feet in diameter of the same flower species --- but linear corridors along fences or roads can also be effective.  When planning pollinator patches, try to think like a tiny bee, remembering that the smallest pollinators may only fly 600 feet or less each day in search of food.  If you have flowerbeds already scattered around your homestead, can you join them together with corridors or stepping stones (small patches of flowers) to make it easier for the bees to move from point A to point B?

Wasp on oreganoNext, consider the types of plants in your forage areas.  Head out into your garden in the summer and take note of which plants are already drawing in pollinators --- for us, some of the wild bees' favorite attractions are our overgrown oregano bed, our peach trees, and our buckwheat cover crops.  Are there times of the year when very few or no flowers are in bloom?  If so, you'll want to hunt down pollinator-friendly flowers to fill in those gaps.

When choosing plants, consider native plants, or at least cultivated varieties that haven't been bred to be excessively showy --- the most ornamental flowers have usually developed double petals and other fancy features at the expense of the pollen and nectar that bees depend on.  Aim for at least nine plant species in your forage areas --- three each for spring, summer, and fall --- and try to include at least one plant that blooms very early in spring and one that blooms very late in the fall. 

Finally, the Xerces Society recommends that you include at least one native warm-season bunch grass or sedge in wildflower meadows, planning for the grass to cover 30% or less of the ground area.  Native bunch grasses host butterflies, provide nest sites for bumblebees and overwintering sites for other insects, and make the landscape more weed-resistant.

Wildflower meadow for native beesHow do you maintain a pollinator meadow?  Depending on the scale of your project, you may choose grazing, mowing, or fire, but be sure to do so patchily and at low intensity.  For example, if you're going to mow your meadow to keep tree seedlings and weeds at bay, cut the plants at 12 to 16 inches and mow slowly in daylight, using a flushing bar to encourage animals to move out of the way.  Mow or burn no more than a third or a quarter of the area at a time so that animals can escape to nearby untouched areas.  If you graze, do so at low intensity and rotate animals out quickly; if you burn, leave areas fire-free for 5 to 10 years.

Sounds pretty daunting, huh?  I've gotten bogged down in creating pollinator habitat in the past because I simply can't talk myself into managing flowers in the summer when the vegetable garden demands so much of my time.  As a result, I'm pondering a few different options:

  • Focusing on perennial flowers --- Annual flower beds clearly aren't my cup of tea, but my perennial flowers survive neglect as long as they get weeded and mulched once a year.  Clearly I need to think further in that direction.
  • Combining flowers with pastures --- I'm tempted to turn one of our chicken pastures into a pollinator meadow.  The management techniques used to attract pollinators are just the opposite of what I'd do to promote maximum food for chickens, but surely there's a way to meet in the middle?
  • Flowers in the forest garden --- The flowers in my forest gardens tend to fall by the wayside since they're annuals and I ignore them.  But if I grew perennials around each of my fruit trees, I'd have good pollinator habitat close to most of my garden areas.

Do you have low-work pollinator forage areas?  What are your key management techniques to keep them going?

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This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.



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This is great! Especially the details about the shapes of wildflower patches. I'd not run into that yet. Some buddies and I are planning a permaculture orchard for this spring, so we've been looking at the natives and pollinator attractor plants pretty intensely. All the research I'm finding absolutely agrees with your 'full season flowering' comment too. The single key factor for resiliency in various test plots (Colorado and Maryland) has been complexity. The more complex / more diverse the site, the fewer the pest issues across the board. ~Molly

Comment by Molly from eatcology Wed Dec 28 13:33:54 2011
I think you're a prime candidate for reading the whole book --- they mentioned several useful studies that are very interesting for the ecologically inclined. For example, they found that the bare minimum is to have 8 flower species, and bee diversity seems to increase from there up until you have about 20 flower species, at which point it plateaus.
Comment by anna Wed Dec 28 13:45:24 2011





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