Simple Steps to Help Pollinators

1. Provide Something to Eat and a Place to Call Home

Pollinators require the same things we do: food and water, shelter, and some room to roam.

Provide Pollen and Nectar

Picture of bee full of pollenPollinators need to eat, and nectar and pollen are an important part of their diet. Nectar is a sugary liquid that provides carbohydrates and nutrients, while pollen is packed with protein. A flowering plant produces a finite amount of pollen, and nectar production may increase or decrease throughout the day, depending on the species of plant.

Focus on diversity - a variety flowers with different colours, shapes, and bloom periods ensures that pollinators have access to the food they need. It is also important to conserve and/or plant flowers that are native to our region, as these are the plants that our local pollinators rely upon to survive.

 

Provide a Source of Water

picture of bee drinking waterA source of water is helpful for pollinators. Pollinators stay hydrated by drinking from puddles or sipping dew from plants. If water is scarce, a shallow dish with water and partially submerged pebbles can serve as a puddling station. The pebbles allow pollinators to land near the water to drink without falling in.

 

Provide a Place to Nest

In addition to food and water, pollinators need nesting habitat. Natural areas provide a variety of places to nest, but wildflower gardens can also serve this purpose.

picture of mason bee nesting
Photo Credit: David Ostermann

Pollinators vary in their nesting requirements. Bees, for example, all nest in very different ways. Bumble bees typically nest in the ground, so start their colonies in leaf litter or in the abandoned dens of rodents. Mining bees, sweat bees, and long-horned bees dig into the soil to create subterranean nests. Many leafcutting bees will use holes in old wood. Carpenter bees and yellow-faced bees will build their nests in the hollow stems of plants. An interesting group called the resin bees will gather plant resins to mix with pebbles for the construction of concrete homes, and wool-carder bees will gather the fuzzy hairs from leaves to line their nests.  

Even though nesting is complex, providing the right shelter for nesting can be easy. It can be as simple as including a pile of leaves or mulch, leaving small patches of bare soil or sand, or providing old tree stumps or logs. You can also adjust your maintenance practices, such as leaving standing stems and limiting tilling.

Keep Artificial Nests Clean and Safe

If artificial nesting sites are provided to enhance populations of native pollinators, care should be taken in their management to ensure they do not propagate pests and diseases. Click here to learn about the challenges faced by pollinators, including diseases such a moulds, parasitoids, and predators.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Remove old nesting materials after the bees have emerged. Old nesting material can be disinfected by treating it with a 5% solution of household bleach for 5 minutes. This treatment will suppress foliar moulds. 
  • Use nests that have a tight seal at the back end of the tunnels, as well as at the sides. This protects bees from parasitoid wasps and the spread of mites and viruses.
  • Seal the spaces between the nesting tunnels or straws. Different species of wasps may use these spaces and eventually displace, or prey upon, the resident bees.
  • Place a screen over the nest to keep predators out. The holes in the screen should be large enough to let the bees pass through. You can also select nests that are designed to be difficult for predators to access.    

2. Grow Native Plants to Help Pollinators Thrive

Both our pollinators and the habitats that support them need our help.

Select Native Plants

Native plants are those that occur naturally in our region. The Prairie Provinces were home to vast expanses of natural grassland habitat, so growing prairie prairie species is extremely important for native prairie pollinators.

Native plants offer many benefits. The majority of the species available from growers are perennial, meaning they return year after year from the roots. Those deep roots make them drought tolerant and able to withstand extreme cold. They are well adapted to local conditions, making them hardy and able to deal with the environmental stressors and diseases that nature has to offer. Picture of native speciesMost importantly for native pollinators, native plants produce the pollen and nectar that our local bees rely on to fuel themselves and feed their developing young. In fact, many of our bee species use pollen and nectar from native asters alone! Lastly, native perennials are beautiful. They come in an array of colours, shapes, and sizes that make impressive displays in any garden.

Native species can be mixed with other bedding plants. While native plants are ideal, we still have our favourite annuals that look great and are functional. If you have a garden that is mostly non-native annuals, consider planting some native perennials as accents. Also, ensure that the annuals you purchase are free from pesticides that can harm pollinators.

In a city landscape of concrete roads and buildings, a patch of wildflowers can be an oasis for a foraging pollinator. A flower pot of milkweed on a balcony, patches of wildflowers in a garden, native flowering shrubs in a backyard, or a community planting in a greenspace all contribute to pollinator health.

Things to Consider When Selecting Plants
  • Choose a variety of different species that offer pollen and nectar through spring and fall.
  • Select native species in different shapes, sizes and colours - different pollinators prefer different types of flowers
  • Was the plant grown without the use of pesticides?
  • Ask your grower about chemicals in their greenhouse.
  • Many perennials produce viable seed. How might this impact surrounding properties?
  • Ensure that the species you plant are not listed as Tier 1 weeds on the Noxious Weed Act.

3. Leave a Messy Garden for Pollinators

Take a Break From Garden Clean-up in the Fall

picture of a rake and leavesPollinator conservation is a great excuse to take a break from garden clean-up. In the past, gardeners routinely cleaned out their gardens in the fall, leaving nothing but bare soil. We now know that is less than ideal for pollinators. Many insects require an insulating layer of fallen grasses, branches, and leaves when overwintering on the ground. Some species will spend their winters inside the stems of plants, while others will spend their winters suspended to the outside of the stem. A messy garden gives pollinators the habitat they need to survive the winter months.

 

Delay Your Garden Clean-up in the Spring

snowmelt on vegetationAs the snow melts and spring approaches, give pollinators some time to emerge before cleaning up for planting. Waiting until the May long weekend is a good rule of thumb. This will help ensure overwintering insects have had a chance to warm up, wake up, and move along. If you can't wait that long, you can move the plant material off to the side to let insects disperse before placing the material in your compost bin.

 

 

 

4. Protecting Pollinators from Pesticides

Pollinators face a lot of challenges, including harm from pesticides. In the "Challenges Facing Pollinators" page, learn about what pesticides are and how pollinators are exposed to them. The tabs below provide simple steps to protect pollinators from pesticides.

Diversify Your Garden

One of the best tactics to protect pollinators from pesticides is not to use them at all. In a natural ecosystem, there are a wide variety of organisms that depend on each other. Populations of prey and predators tend to keep each other in balance in diverse settings. For instance, the aphids that attack a honeysuckle are gobbled up by ladybird beetles, which in turn are eaten by birds. You can encourage these natural relationships by incorporating a wide variety of native prairie plants into your garden.  A diverse variety of plants not only dilutes the potential pest problem, but also provides a diverse habitat for beneficial insects. 

Apply Pesticides Only When Necessary

In order to avoid harming pollinators, insect control should be used sparingly. Consider using alternative methods of control (cultural control, physical control, biological control) in your garden.

Apply the Least Toxic Insecticide

Not all insecticides are equally toxic to pollinators. Toxicity can vary among different active ingredients. If pesticides must be used, select products with compounds that are the least toxic to non-target insects like bees. This will help mitigate negative effects on pollinator populations. Many natural compounds have very low toxicity to pollinators yet still control pests. Examples of these include biological pesticides like some variants of Bacillus thuringiensis (BTk), and essential oils.  

Read the Pesticide Label

Pesticide application labels will outline the conditions of their use to minimize the potential impacts on pollinators.  Make sure to read and follow the label instructions before applying and pesticide to ensure risks to pollinators are minimized.

  • Avoid spray drift. Pollinators can be exposed to pesticides when spray drifts away from the target area. Dusts can be collected by bees and brought back to their colonies, compounding their potential exposure to pesticides. Products that are susceptible to drift should not be applied when wind conditions will result in drift to areas where pollinators may nest or forage. The use of nozzles that increase droplet size or reduce pressure in the sprayer tank can help to reduce spray drift.
  • Don’t apply when pollinators are present. Avoid using insecticides on plants that are in bloom or near plants that are in bloom. Applications should be made prior to bloom or following bloom, and should be insecticides that are the least toxic to pollinators. Most bees forage on day-blooming plants, therefore applications in late evening or after dark will avoid direct contact with the majority of pollinating insects.  Although evening application of insecticides is generally best for protecting pollinators, beware of applying insecticides to gardens with flowers that bloom after dark and are pollinated by at night by moths (typically these flowers will produce a strong aroma in the evening).
Keep in Contact with Potential Pesticide Applicators in Your Area

If you have a pollinator friendly garden and bee nesting sites on your property, communication is key when keeping pollinators on your property safe from exposure. Contact your municipality to establish pesticide spray buffer zones around your property to help protect any nesting bees from accidental exposure during insect control programs. Make sure your neighbours are aware that you maintain bees or pollinator gardens on your property, and that you would like to be informed should they have the need to spray.  Encourage them to use the least toxic compounds possible and spray in the evening.

Protect Bee Nests and Gardens from Spray Application

Nesting sites of bees can be temporarily covered with damp burlap sacking to prevent bees from flying during application. Care must be taken to ensure that the bee nests have some ventilation and shade and are not covered too long, especially on hot days, or they may overheat. Some studies in the U.S. suggest turning on sprinkler systems to keep bees inside their nests when pesticides are being applied, helping to prevent poisoning from spray drift. Some types of bee nests may be moved from the target area and temporarily located to a new site or stored in a cool location. However, there is a risk of high bee losses as a result of these manipulations. 

5. Keep Conservation in Mind

Importance of Native Plants and Habitat

While we can do our best to recreate natural areas through restoration, we can never truly replicate ecosystems that have taken thousands of years to establish. Grasslands are no exception. The prairies are extremely complex and rare - for the tall grass prairie that was historically found in southern Manitoba, less than 1% remains. By supporting habitat conservation, we support the many species of pollinators that call the prairie home. 

When habitat is created, focusing on native plants is key. Pollinating insects evolved alongside our native vegetation so can be very tightly linked to certain species. Some pollinators are considered specialists. This is a species that can only use a certain plant (host plant), or a particular type of nesting habitat, to complete their life cycle. A classic example is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars (larvae) can only feed on milkweed. Native species of milkweed are best because they are in sync with monarch reproduction in our region: they are growing when the first eggs are laid and they die back when the adult butterflies are due to leave for their migration to Mexico. This specialization isn't limited to butterflies, as some of our native bees also specialize in using resources from a short list of species. Without native prairie plants, these specialists cannot survive.

Small Changes Add Up

When helping pollinators, conservation often comes down to the choices you make. How was the food you’re eating produced? Are the flowers you’re planting treated with chemicals that harm pollinators? Do you need that much green lawn, our could some of it become a flower bed? Could you suggest that a local community centre include some native flowers in their planters? Could you skip the raking and leave those leaves for bees? Every little change adds up, and can make a big difference for our pollinators.