For many people, gardening offers a chance to nurture living things while getting fresh air and exercise. Some seek to put tasty vegetables on their tables, while others find joy in vibrant, fragrant flora.
Whichever type of gardener you are, there’s another purpose you can add to your green-thumb ways: supporting your region’s pollinators. From bees and butterflies to moths and even some types of flies, insect pollinators will seek out plants that easily offer up nutritious nectar and pollen in exchange for pollen-spreading opportunities.
“That’s usually the exchange that’s going on, the silent agreement that’s evolved over time,” said Dr. Cynthia Nazario-Leary, urban horticulture agent at the University of Hawaii-Manoa Cooperative Extension Service at UH-Maui College, who coordinates the Maui Master Gardener program.
The plight of the pollinator, especially honeybees, has been gaining attention in recent years. Worldwide, and on Oahu and the Big Island, a pest called the varroa mite has led to a decline in feral and managed honeybees. Along with the mites, which have yet to appear on Maui, other pests and diseases have contributed to colony declines around the world.
“Bees unfortunately are kind of suffering from a wham bam,” Nazario-Leary said. “There’s less genetic diversity, and then on top of that there’s a lot more introduced pests for them.”
In May, the White House announced a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, which aims to protect vulnerable insects that are critical to the economy, food security and environmental health. The plan encourages the construction of more pollinator-friendly gardens as one step communities can take to help out.
On Maui, honeybees flourish thanks to ample rain and a year-round growing season, said Mark Damon, who with wife Leah, operates Maui Bees, where they farm and manage hives Upcountry. But in drier parts of the island that can go months without much rain, causing wild plants to die back or produce little to no nectar, irrigated and cultivated plants on farms and around homes can help sustain bees.
“They can do well in residential areas as long as there are enough flowering ornamentals,” Mark Damon said, adding that irrigation is usually necessary.
To appeal to the many pollinators out there, it’s important to include a wide variety of plants, said Nazario-Leary. This will help ensure that at least one type of plant is blooming at any given time.
Certain flowers are better-suited for insect pollinators, such as daisy-type blooms that act like a sort of landing pad, with their flat, easily accessible petals. Popular species such as birds of paradise or ginger plants, on the other hand, are pollinated by birds and don’t provide much food for insects.
“What you want for things like bees, and even some moths and butterflies, are more of these short, accessible flowers,” Nazario-Leary said.
Herbs also produce small flowers perfect for insect pollinators, such as mint, sage, basil and oregano. While those looking to use herbs in their kitchens might normally pinch off buds to prevent flowering, or “bolting,” when growing them for pollinators, it’s important to let them bloom. Many herbs remain tasty enough for cooking as they flower, otherwise, simply replace the plants once they’ve ran their course.
Nazario-Leary also encourages gardeners to use native plants, such as ilima or mamaki. And for those looking to grow fruits and vegetables, consider cucumbers, pumpkins, squash and other melons, as well as tomatoes and legumes, which offer up attractive flowers and rely on bees to produce fruit.
Along with flowering trees, Mark Damon suggests borage, sunflowers, bee balm and snapdragons as examples of plants bees love, saying “the list is endless.” The key is to ensure you select plants that produce nectar and keep them adequately watered, he added.
In terms of laying out a pollinator garden, Nazario-Leary said it’s best to clump each species of plant together, which will lead to a larger floral display that helps pollinators more easily “zoom in on their target.”
Your garden should also include flowering plants at various heights, to appeal to a wider range of pollinators. Climbing vines, and papaya or ohia lehua trees can add height.
“Different insects are going to target different strata of your garden,” she said.
Something else to consider: Pollinators are highly susceptible to pesticides, so it’s best to avoid their use.
Try selecting hardier plants to reduce the need for pesticides, or try other methods like a homemade soap solution to combat unwanted bugs. Those who do use pesticides should read labels and follow instructions carefully, be precise in their application and do so at night when most insects aren’t out foraging.
Mark and Leah Damon recommend avoiding pesticides, especially those including neonicotinoids, which are systemic – meaning that the active ingredient can be found in all the tissues of the plant, including the pollen.
“Probably the most constructive thing that people can do is to stop spraying pesticides on their ornamental and food gardens,” Mark Damon said. “Garden organically.”
Letting your garden go a little wild isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Nazario-Leary. Pollinator gardens can serve as mini ecosystems, attracting many different insects that each serve a purpose. The diversity should help keep a healthy balance.
“I think an easier way is just plant enough things so that everybody’s happy,” she said. “And usually if it’s diverse enough, you’re going to have those good insects that are also kind of controlling the population of the bad insects.”
To find more information on making your garden pollinator-friendly, visit www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/UHMG.
* Chelsea Duncan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.