Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

Honey bee at a wildflower

By now most people are aware that honey bees are facing the very real possibility of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honey bees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honey bees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries.

Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honey bees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honey bee dies.

Honey bee pollinating a wildflower

In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honey bees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances.

In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators:

  1. I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible.
  2. I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy.
  3. I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard.

Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honey bees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honey bees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) flower

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

Peony (Paeonia spp.) flower

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

White clover (Trifolium repens) flower

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honey bees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

Pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis) flower

Another pollinator plant in my yard, that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon, is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honey bees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival.

To that end we need to:

  1. Hold biopharmaceutical corporations accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities.
  2. Stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops.
  3. Support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people.
  4. Get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can.

For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare.


22 thoughts on “Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

  1. Thank you for the important post. It’s awful how mankind thoughtlessly kills its planet. In my garden, many flowering plants grow, both annual and multi-annual. I’m very pleased to hear buzzing bees.

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  2. Great post.
    I hope a lot of people take this information seriously enough to actually do something. Apathy and complacency are the true evils causing so much destruction to the planet. I used to grow plants when I had a back yard – though it was mostly vegetables. Friends and family ate everything that grew. It provided occasional organic salads as well as eggplant, squash, zucchini, cucumber and pepper for dishes to compliment meals and tomatoes for sauces. I also planted lettuce and carrots for the rabbits who lived in an area of the yard with brush set aside to keep them safe. It was hard work, but extremely rewarding.

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  3. beautiful pictures Mark. It is true that honey bees are disappearing, as to me, I don’t understand at all why as this is far from my line of work, but it is very interesting. I am one person who is scared of the honey bees, but honey is one of my favourite, I love it.

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  4. Mark,
    Thanks for yet another informative and thought-stimulating post. I’m glad to know that sugar ants are pollinators, too. Would you care to comment on the malathion dumped from helicopters in places like Savannah? Because of my chickens and other wildlife, I don’t use manufactured chemicals in my yard, either, but I can’t stop the county from dumping them on my head, even though I’ve tried. The result was the helicopter made a special effort to buzz my living room window and dump extra poison on my property. I could smell it.
    Also, would you mention other potential pollinators? I believe birds, maybe hummingbirds, pollinate, too.
    It occurs to me that naturalists like us could have a global cooling effect by planting more greenery, especially trees, but flowering plants, too. It doesn’t require an act of Congress, but merely concerted efforts by those who want to increase their “green footprints,” not with legislation but with small, symbolic, life-serving, and decisive individual acts.
    As far as the chemical manufacturers go, I’m a strong advocate of boycotting stocks as well as products, and telling everyone why. Unfortunately, the worst eco-rapists also pay the highest dividends, so this becomes a moral challenge for many. Legislation is low-yield, as I suspect many members of Congress have stock and retirement portfolios heavy loaded with eco-rapist stocks.

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    1. Mark, thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging response. I agree that positive change will require a mass awakening at as many levels as possible. I merely want to remind people that individuals can indeed make a difference, a fact many have forgotten.

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    2. Also, just commenting on the malathion may wake others up. That these poisons are being dumped willy-nilly will perhaps enrage others as much as it does me.
      Not to get too far off-subject, but the buildup of environmental toxins is a huge and under-recognized problem. It is particularly problematic because Americans, especially, are seduced into being extraordinarily excessive and wasteful. A little self-restraint would be enormously beneficial to the bees and everything else.

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  5. Great post, Mark. We need to try to safeguard everything in this world…everything has a place in an ecosystem except us. The sooner humanity somehow acts as part of such a system, the better it can be.

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  6. Good information! In my yard it’s bumblebees that service my raspberries each year. I understand they aren’t exactly flourishing as a species either. Do you belong to the Xerces Society?

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