While bees and other insects have managed to gain a bad reputation at picnics, in the house, and in your ear, they’re actually crucial for your vegetable garden. So-- what are friendly pollinators and how are they different from harmful garden insects?
While insects like aphids, caterpillars, and cutworms eat vital parts of your plants and cause damage, pollinators are just visiting for the nectar. Typically this means they will leave the sap, leaves, and stems alone, though they’ll take the pollen with them.
Quick Note: Pollen and nectar are very different substances, though they’re often confused.
Pollen: grains of pollen are technically the sperm cells of the plant. They’re needed to fertilize the “female” organs, the pistils. Pollen is vital to the ecosystem and arch nemesis to human eyeballs come Spring.
Nectar: a sugary, aromatic fluid created by plants with the sole purpose of attracting pollinators.
Examples of friendly pollinators are bees, moths, butterflies, bats, and certain types of birds, beetles, and wasps. These critters are attracted to the sugary nectar and protein-filled pollen of your vegetables’ flowers. While they are feeding, grains of pollen will inevitably stick to their legs and bodies, then they will be transported to different flowers, plants, and garden beds.
While some vegetables are pollinated by wind or through self-pollination, many (and most of the more commonly grown vegetables) are pollinated only by critters. For example, the following garden veggies are pollinated by friendly insects: asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collards, cucumbers, eggplant, gourds, kale, onions, parsley, hot peppers, pumpkins, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, and many more!
Looking at that list, it’s apparent that attracting a healthy population of pollinators to your garden is crucial. If you want these crops to do well, you need to give these insects good reason to visit. Here’s how:
- Lots of flowers. Though many of your vegetable plants will produce flowers themselves, help them out by planting extra flowers throughout your garden. These pollinators are attracted to all kinds of different scents-- the more the merrier.
- But avoid hybrid flowers. Hybrid flowers are trending due to their unique esthetic appearances and their range of colors. But be warned-- these plants are bred in such a way that they produce very little pollen or nectar. While they can be fun accents, avoid planting too many of them and leave room for other flowers for the sake of your bees.
- Eliminate pesticides. Instead of chemicals that can cause harm to bees and benevolent insects, try some home remedies to keep pests like aphids and squirrels away from your crops. Some ideas are: epsom salt spray, garlic spray, essential oil blends, or spreading/spraying hot red peppers on and around your plants. Secret Weapon: Neem Oil. This oil is developed from the seeds of the neem tree; it’s toxic to insects, but only if the substance is actually ingested. This means that spraying neem oil on your plants will kill any harmust insects that are eating vital parts of your plants, but it will leave pollinators unharmed.
- More flowers. Native ones. Bees and butterflies will be enticed by a variety of scents and flowers, but remember they are most partial to their native plants. In fact, bees are four times more attracted to native plants than exotic ones.
- Create a butterfly “bath” or feeder. Put a small source of water in your garden for butterflies and other pollinators to drink from. You can use a cup or small bird bath for this or try a drip hose to keep a portion of your soil moist. For best results, add a bit of sea salt into the mud to create a salt-lick for butterflies and bees.
- Aaaaand even more flowers. Plant a range of flowering plants that bloom at different periods throughout the seasons. This will guarantee that bees will start pollinating your garden as early as the first weeks of spring, and continue to do so all the way through the end of autumn. Flower Tip: the colors that tend to attract bees at the highest rates are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
Clearly, much of your pollination success depends on which and how many flowers you include in your garden. While selecting these accents, remember to look only (or mostly) for native species and those with strong scents. Don’t be fooled by unique, exotic, or hybridized blossoms, however, as your bees won’t be as keen on them as you are. It’s also helpful to look for flowers with large “landing pads” for bees-- think wide, sturdy flower petals or leaves. Here are our recommendations:
- California lilacs
This year, maximize your production by adding some color to your garden! It’s easy, beautiful, and will ultimately benefit our local ecosystem.