Five easy ways to support pollinators in 2021

2020 was a rough year for everyone, including pollinators. Asian giant hornets arrived in Washington state, threatening honey bees; western Monarch butterfly numbers were the lowest in the past 30 years; neonicotinoid pesticides continue to be approved for use in the United States; and endangered rusty-patched bumble bees did not receive critical habitat because their biology is too poorly understood. That’s just the start.

Pollinators face a relentless barrage of threats from humans. The main factors driving pollinators declines include habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, light pollution, and the spread of exotic species and disease. Recently, scientists framed pollinator declines as “death by a thousand cuts,” underscoring that no single factor is solely responsible. Rather, the combination of multiple factors working in tandem is the greatest threat.

With this in mind, 2021 is a perfect year to resolve to make a small change in your lifestyle to support pollinators. Inspired by a recent list of actions to conserve insects, TPI proposes five actions you can take in 2021 to make a difference in the lives of urban pollinators:

1. Grow native plants. Native plants are beautiful and adapted to the local environment, meaning they require less water and fewer chemical inputs compared to ornamental plants. Even more, they offer food (pollen, nectar, leaves), nesting sites, and shelter for pollinators. Native plants also provide cultural benefits in the form of reconnecting community members to their local environments. Interested in growing natives? Check out our native planting guides and stay tuned for details regarding TPI’s native plant sale during 2021 national pollinator week.

Plant native goldenrod to assist eastern Monarch butterflies on their fall migration to Mexico.

2. Reduce your pesticide use. Pesticides are nasty chemicals that are widely used to suppress pest insects and weeds, but also cause non-target effects in pollinators. In spite of successful efforts in Europe to increase regulation on these pesticides, as well as ongoing campaigns here in the U.S., many harmful chemicals remain available to consumers worldwide. On average, lawns receive ten times more pesticides than do conventionally grown crops. Use pesticides judiciously and in a targeted way; avoid broad applications and claims by companies to “eradicate mosquitos.” Remember: any product that kills a mosquito also kills a bee.

3. Turn off your lights at night. Artificial light at night (ALAN) is one of most recognizable signatures of humanity from space. Yet, it also spells disaster for nocturnal pollinating insects like moths and beetles. Insects attracted to lights are easily picked off by predators and are worse at finding mates. As a result, insect populations suffer in areas with high ALAN such as cities. To curb declines of nocturnal pollinating insects, install motion-activated lights, replace bright blue-white lights with softer red-orange ones, or plant a moon garden containing night-blooming plants. Let’s keep our skies dark.

4. Shop local and support farmer’s markets. Many growers and vendors in Somerville and Medford near Tufts University (like the Somerville Winter Market and Neighborhood Produce) are committed to supporting pollinators by selling pesticide-free, locally-made products. Shop there as often as possible in order to avoid less insect-friendly alternatives at larger chain stores.

5. Educate others and share this post. Urban pollinator conservation depends on the active participation of the community. Become an advocate for pollinator conservation by writing to your politicians, installing a yard sign, or by simply talking about it—to your kids, your friends, your neighbors, your hairdressers, your bakers, your baristas. Teach them that bees come in all shapes and sizes or challenge them to notice their first monarch butterfly of the year. Simple awareness of pollinators—getting people to notice their environment—is the goal.

Have you made any pollinator resolutions for 2021? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

Plants and pollinators in our gardens

Over the past few months, TPI members have hard at work sifting through and analyzing the data we collected in summer 2020. Each week, three times per week, we identified the flowering plants in our gardens and counted flower-visiting insects. We’ve summarized the diversity of plants and insects found in our gardens on two new webpages: Plant Diversity and Pollinator Diversity. In short…

Our gardens contain more than 20 species each of native wildflowers. At least one species was blooming in our gardens each week between May and October. Some of the most popular native wildflowers of pollinators and humans alike are wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), blazing star (Liatris scariosa), new york ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), and new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Do you have any of these plants in your garden?

Our urban garden is attractive to both people and pollinators!

Our gardens attracted over 115 species of insect pollinators. Some of those insects found food in our gardens: six different bumble bee species (Bombus spp.) collected pollen from sunflowers, sand wasps (Bembix americana) hunted flies, and gray hairstreak caterpillars (Strymon melinus) browsed on mountain mint. Other insects made their home in our gardens: furrow bees (Halictus sp.) and leaf-cutter bees (Megachile sp.) nested in the bare soils. Our gardens are just two years old and already they are supporting more insects than we could have imagined! We can’t wait to see what we find during our surveys in 2021.

Monarch butterflies refueled on goldenrod (Solidago spp.) in our gardens as they headed south to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

What pollinators live in the city?

Have you ever wondered what kinds of pollinators like to visit urban gardens? My work this summer can help answer that question! My name is Maria Ostapovich, and I am currently a first year Master’s student at Tufts and a new member of TPI. Since the beginning of July, I have been surveying pollinators in gardens around Somerville, MA to understand 1) which pollinators occur in urban gardens and 2) which flowering plants those pollinators depend on. I surveyed pollinator-friendly gardens and ornamental gardens to see how they compared to one another.

Me surveying the ornamental garden in Powderhouse Square rotary. PC: Nick Dorian

Surprisingly, it was difficult to find public gardens (within walking distance) to survey during this project. The eight suitable gardens I found seemed like unlikely homes for pollinators: a busy bike path, a yard next to a construction site, and the middle of a rotary. But after my first survey, the opposite proved true. In the middle of the city, flowers everywhere were brimming with pollinating bees, wasps, hover flies, and butterflies.

Twice per week, I surveyed all eight gardens on foot. I made sure to pack plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes for my trek through Somerville and, by the end of each six-hour survey, I had invariably logged 10,000 steps. At each garden, I identified each flowering species of plant and counted the number of blooms. Then, I identified and counted the number of pollinator species that visited flowers, noting which species of plant they visited over 10 minutes.

First, I found that not all plants are equally attractive to pollinators. Commonly planted ornamental plants like day lilies and hostas did receive some insect visits, but native plants consistently outshone them. The white candelabras of culver’s root were particularly attractive to pollinators in June and July; cutleaf coneflower was a favorite of sweat bees and long-horned bees; and goldenrod stole the show in the fall. Native plants, clearly, were a favorite of pollinators in Somerville.

Bees love asters! Metallic green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.), sweat bee (Halictus sp.), and the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) on New England aster in a pollinator-friendly garden. PC: Maria Ostapovich

Overall, the insect diversity that I observed was incredible. I found insects ranging from fuzzy, clumsy bumblebees to indecisive, metallic green sweat bees. I observed cute little leaf-cutter bees holding their abdomens aloft and I saw formidable (yet harmless!) great black digger wasps. Among many other pollinators, I saw long-horned bees quickly zipping between flowers and several convincing bee-mimics including a hover fly (Spilomyia longicornis) that looks nearly identical to a European paper wasp. Surprisingly, I observed few butterflies during my surveys, perhaps a result of unfavorable conditions earlier in the year.

Male long-horned bee (Melissodes sp.) taking a break on a sunflower before zipping off. PC: Nick Dorian

I learned so much this summer, most notably how to identify urban plants and pollinators! For any tips for identifying pollinators on your own, check out TPI’s identification guides. While it was fun to learn how to identify so many species, it was even more exciting to see what kinds of plant-pollinator interactions took place across these gardens. Although the data analysis is still ongoing, I will be able to generate lists of plants that pollinators like and dislike as well as document the weeks of the year during which plants are flowering and pollinator species are most active. These findings will be coming soon after I complete my surveys (which are continuing until frost reaches Somerville) and after I learn the best way to analyze my data. Make sure to keep an eye out for additional blog posts sharing more of my findings!

To learn more about our ongoing efforts to document urban pollinator biodiversity, get in touch with us through social media or tuftspollinators@gmail.com!