The more the merrier: community actions for pollinators

bumble bee on a purple coneflower

Besides it being the month when summer starts, June is a great month because it is when Pollinator Week happens! 😊

Tagging along with that week, in today’s post I want to talk about some actions you can take with(in) your community to help pollinators! Because, if we want to help pollinators, a very valid and effective way to amplify your actions is to get others on board! Here, a non-extensive list of ideas.

1. Become a Bee City

Ask your City or Campus to become a certified Bee City or Bee Campus USA. Bee Cities and Campuses are certifications that cities and campuses across the USA can obtain if they implement a series of actions (“commitments”) established by the Xerces Society. Once these actions are done, the City or Campus in question becomes certified as a pollinator-friendly space. The types of actions outlined are really activities that lead to increasing education on pollinators and pollination, to improving pollinator habitat on the institution’s land, to promoting actions in the way that the institution functions that may allow for increasing pollinator support (see here for city commitments and here for campus commitments). Becoming a Bee City or Campus is not hard, and most institutions say yes if their members ask. If you think this is something you would like your City and/or Campus to do, reach out to your representatives or leadership and get them on board! And to have an idea of what cities and campuses are already involved, take a look at the Bee City USA affiliates.

2. Organize a Pollinator Week Event

Pollinator Week is a National event organized by the Pollinator Partnership and includes many possible actions that lead to increasing pollinator survival and/or awareness. This year, Pollinator Week will be happening June 20-26. One can participate in activities already organized by others, or one can propose and host an activity! If you would like to get together with your community and organize an event, do it, and then submit it to the Pollinator Week event list! That way, others will know about it and will participate as well! To submit (or participate in) an event, go to the bottom of the Pollinator Partnership page.

Here are some activities happening in Maryland: bee hotel building workshop in College Park, MD, webinar in Greenbelt, MD, pollinator catch-and-release in Saint Leonard, MD, and several activities in Howard Co., MD.

Pollinator Week, June 20-26, 2022 logo

3. Ask your city to host a No-Mow Month in early-spring

Early-spring pollinators emerge usually when very few plants are flowering, meaning that the early spring is a critical time for these pollinators. In human-occupied landscapes like cities or suburban areas, a lot of the landscape is occupied by lawns, which can provide some flowers early in the spring. No-Mow Month (usually April or May, depending on the city’s conditions) is an action that seeks to allow the availability of the early flowers in lawns so that local pollinators can survive during the early spring. Once other plants in the landscape start flowering (usually at the end of April in most of Maryland), the lawn can be mowed with this not negatively affecting pollinators.

It is important to note that this action is based on voluntary participation, meaning that participants opt-in (instead of being mandated to do it). This action has been shown to be effective in increasing pollinator diversity and abundance in regions where it is implemented, and is not associated with excessive lawn growth because it occurs so early in the season. Further, it can be strengthened with native plantings, which can boost its effects and also support local landscapers during the reduced-mow month. Localities where the action has been implemented tend to have high adoption rates, increased nature awareness, and willingness to further support biodiversity around homesteads, with no- to very-reduced vermin occurrence.

This action usually requires some temporal amendments to City Code (e.g., to ensure that participants will not be penalized if their lawns surpass the maximum allowed height during the no-mow month) so it needs approval by City Councils. Although this may sound really complicated, it is not, and several Cities in Maryland have implemented this program very successfully during the month of April (see here for College Park, MD, and here for Greenbelt, MD), following Appleton, WI’s trailblazing action. If you think this is something you would like to implement in your community, get in touch with these cities’ Bee City USA committees so they can share their expertise, and then contact your representatives to ask them to adopt this action where you live!

No Mow April Collage Park sign

4. Ask your community to establish pollinator-friendly plants and nesting resources

Communities can also support pollinators through the way they decide to landscape their land. Requesting your community leadership to implement pollinator-friendly gardens and offer nesting resources for pollinators (e.g., bee hotels, create small wild spaces) is a really good way to help pollinators at a larger scale. To do this, you can get in touch with you City/Town Horticulturist and/or Public Works people, and request this. If you would like to implement this in your neighborhood and on private land, you can coordinate with your neighbors and create plots of native plants or small nesting areas in everybody’s green spaces. A very effective way to do this in Maryland is by establishing a neighborhood Green Team. If you would like to know about how to do this, take a look at this page of recommended native plants and this list of native plants that do well in our area.

Chart listing easy-to-grow native plants that support pollinators

5. Ask you city/town/neighborhood to adopt an IPM plan

Although we tend to think about helping pollinators only by planting flowers and maybe creating nesting spaces, pollinators also can be helped by the way we manage our landscapes. For example, herbicides and pesticides can be sometimes very harmful to pollinators, or cutting plants at certain times of the year can really negatively affect them. Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, or changing the way we manage our own private land is one possibility. However, cities, towns, neighborhoods, schools, and campuses also manage their public lands! For that reason, they can also implement actions to manage spaces in ways that support pollinators.

chart explaining Integrated Pest Management in 5 steps

A very good way to institutionalize this is by requesting these institution to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans. IPM is a way of controlling pests and increasing “beneficial” organisms in a given space by means that reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. These plans establish a framework that allows institutions to still control pests and diseases, while reducing the negative impacts on biodiversity that some conventional practices have. These plans can be very general or very specific, and if your institution does not have one, it may be time to ask them to implement one! To do this, get in touch with your institutional horticulturist or your government representative. Here are some examples: city, campus and school district plans.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Bees to look out for: leaf-cutter bees!

Spring is well-established and many flowers have already started to bloom. In my garden, I have seen several sizes and shapes of insects visiting flowers, going from small flower flies to butterflies, to very tiny and shiny, fuzzy large, and very large bees. And with all these flying organisms starting to come around us, I thought today would be a really good time to introduce you to some really cool bees that are very common in our area: the leaf-cutter bees!

What are leaf-cutter bees?

As its name suggests, these are solitary bees known to cut leaves (now you may be thinking, “duh, I could have guessed that without a blog post”, but bear with me!). These bees belong to a very large family of bees called Megachilidae, which is present on all continents except Antarctica and well-represented in our region.

Like most solitary bees, the female of leaf-cutter bees builds nests with small brood cells, in each of which a food provision is left and one egg laid. And this is where the “leaf-cutter” name comes from. When building their nests, many of these females line their brood cells with specific materials, in particular plant tissues. In fact, many of the species are known to cut leaves and/or petals to line their nests, using them to stabilize the brood cells, and likely to provide protection to the larva and the food provisions. In a fascinating way, it is suspected that these bees are able to exploit the antimicrobial effects of certain compounds present in these flowers and leaves, indirectly using them to protect their offspring until they finish their development in the nests.

If you ever saw neat and relatively large holes that seem to suddenly pop up on certain plants in your green spaces, it is very likely that they were made by some of these bees that may be nesting close to you! If you keep an eye out on those plants, it is very likely that you will end up seeing these busy bees carefully cutting, then rolling, and finally flying away with the neat plant circles!

Female leaf-cutter bee cutting a leaf
Leafcutter bee nest and brood cells made with leaf pieces
Megachilids are known for cutting leaves that they use to line the brood cells of their nest. Note that here the nest is in a soil mound and each brood cell is completely covered with leaves but capped and separate from the neighboring cells. In this nest, each cell contains one egg. Photo: E. Soh.
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How do pollinators find plants and flowers?

As we know, pollinators help plants spread their pollen among flowers, and many plants do indeed need them to be able to reproduce and set seeds. We also know that by planting flowers and providing nesting habitats, we can help pollinators’ populations and thus assist with plant pollination. However, how do pollinators find plants? In this post, we will talk about that topic, which can help us become even better at helping pollinators and the plants they pollinate.

The big picture – pollinators need to be in the area

In order for pollinators to find plants, pollinators need to be present in the general region. In fact, although the vast majority of pollinators can move and travel from place to place, all of them have limitations on the distance they are able to travel. For example, hummingbirds can travel for miles (in Maryland, they are migratory), while large bees are able to travel relatively large distances for an insect (~500m-1km), and smaller insects will not be able to travel that far. This means that if, say, we lived in the middle of a very developed area with very few pollinator-friendly resources (few flowers, lots of cement, no green areas, etc.), planting a pollinator garden will attract few pollinators at first. This is due to the fact that it is likely that few pollinators are present in that area, and thus it will take a while for certain groups to arrive and establish in our garden.

It is for this reason that many communities tend to try to establish joint pollinator-friendly actions, and encourage many people in the region to participate (e.g., becoming Bee City USA-certified, creating “pollinator highways or corridors”). By increasing the regional number of pollinator-friendly resources, the whole region becomes more pollinator-diverse, and any supplementary action is more likely to improve pollinator support. As we talked about in a previous post, if you are interested in promoting pollinator-friendly habitat on your property, it may be a great idea to talk to your neighbors or your City, and see if others may also want to participate. In terms of pollinator-friendly activities, the saying “the more, the merrier” is very much true!

pollinator habitat sign in a garden
Pollinator-friendly actions are very effective when they are coordinated across regions. Photo: A. Kokai.

The local picture – different pollinators prefer different plants

As we mentioned in other posts, not all pollinators are made equal, and this is also true in terms of what plants will be found by what pollinators. For example, hummingbirds tend to visit tubular and reddish flowers, while syrphids prefer open flowers, and bees tend to visit flowers that they can access with their mouth parts (see this post to learn more). 

These floral preferences are due to the different pollinators’ abilities to see different colors, the presence of specific attractive floral scents in different plant species, and the ability of different pollinators with different body and mouth part shapes to handle and feed on flowers, and the matching of pollinator presence and flowering time. The practical consequence of this is that if we want to help many different pollinators find their preferred plants, it is necessary to grow different types of plants in our green spaces. By doing this, we would always provide resources that will be preferred to at least one pollinator, and by providing different types of resources, we can make sure that many different types of pollinators are supported by our plants. In order to do this, there are different floral mixes that exist that allow us to plant diverse floral resources appropriate for our region, which lets us build a diverse and welcoming floral bed for many pollinators.

Planting diverse floral resources will attract many different types of pollinators. Photo: C. Celley/USFWS.

The super-local picture – pollinators need to see the plant to access it

This will sound silly, but pollinators need to be able to have access to the plant to find it. For example, if a plant is not clearly displayed or hidden by many other plants or structures, it will be hard for pollinators to find it… even if the pollinator is present in the area and the plant in question is a preferred plant. This means that for us to help pollinators, we need to make sure that our plants are findable by the pollinators. Picking appropriate parts of our green spaces to plant our pollinator-friendly plants is thus key! For example, plants that require full sun to grow should be planted in those conditions and not under the shade of other plants or behind structures.

To know what these specific conditions are, there exist several resources (for example, see this useful and simple resource (PDF) published by the City of College Park, MD). These resources allow us to pick the best growing spot for our plants, making them easily findable by their pollinator friends.

Finally, pollinators are more likely to find plants if there are several of them! This is particularly true for smaller herbs, which may not display many flowers. By increasing the number of plants planted in an area we are also making the plant species more easily findable to the pollinators.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí. Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

A larva with light: Can you guess what insect this is?

The end of June brought a very exciting event. As I was cutting holes in the landscape fabric to plant some late-season flowers in my high tunnel, I found several larvae of a great beneficial insect! I guess it was the perfect environment, as I found at least 10 that evening. It was moist, although in the photo it looks pretty wet because I was running my drip irrigation water. When I found it, I was so ecstatic that my 5 year old daughter thought something bad had happened with all my yelling! I then shared a photo with my whole family. Needless to say, no one else seems to get quite as excited as I do about good bugs. Below are some photos from that special evening. Do you know what it is? Have you ever seen one? I’ll give you a few clues so you can see if you know what it is.

  1.  As larvae, they are incredible predators of many ground dwelling garden pests, like snails and slugs! 
  2. The adult form is a beetle so they have a complete life cycle —  egg, larvae, pupa, and adult!  
  3. Size: approximately ¾’’. 
  4. The larvae and adults have bioluminescence, an amazing ability to “light up”.  

That’s right, the last clue should have given it away. This is a larva of a lightning bug.

Did you know lightning bugs, also called fireflies, are actually beetles? They bring joy to everyone with their beautiful displays of flashing lights. Lots of additional information about them can be found here: https://www.xerces-dev.org/endangered-species/fireflies/about

Adult beetle. Photinus pyralis, known by the common names common eastern firefly and big dipper firefly

So where could you find these awesome critters in your landscape? Most species have at least a 2-year life cycle, and 95% of their life is in larvae form. Most adults only live 2-4 weeks. They like moist, dark areas near the soil surface, since that will be where they find their next meal.  Sometimes they even hide in the crookes and crevices of tree bark. 

Below are some actions you can take to create a habitat to attract fireflies. This information is provided by Firefly.org.

  1. Eliminate light pollution in your landscape (turn off unneeded outdoor lights, keep your curtains drawn). Fireflies use their flashing patterns to attract mates. Extra lights can disrupt their ability to find each other. 
  2. These critters thrive in wet areas around ponds, streams, wetlands, and swampy areas.  Add a water feature to your landscape if you do not have natural sources. 
  3. Avoid pesticides, especially broad-spectrum insecticides which kill many types of insects indiscriminately (even the beneficial ones). 
  4. Do not over-mow your lawn (taller grass gives fireflies a place to hide during the day). 
  5. Dead logs and leaf litter provide great habitat, so try to create an area in your landscape that has a  natural area with these materials. 
  6. Plant native trees and native grasses to provide shaded habitat. Shade helps conserve soil moisture which attracts food sources for firefly larvae.  

My family is lucky to live in a rural area near a small stream and swampy area, so we are blessed to see a wonderful display of fireflies for several months each year. Check out my blog from last summer:  Firefly or Lightning Bug: You Decide!  

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

In praise of good bugs. Good bugs are a gardener’s best friend.

Boonsboro, MD – 

Ladybugs.
Lacewings.
Ground beetles.
Wasps.

What do all these insects have in common?  They are the good guys, the beneficial insects that help keep bad bugs at bay in our gardens. 

Nine out of 10 insects are beneficial. Yes, most of those flying, crawling, buzzing and burrowing bugs out there are actually helping you battle the few nasty bugs that harm plants. 

How? Some are predators that eat bad bugs.  Others are parasites that lay eggs on bad bugs so their babies get fed. 

So instead of reaching for that spray bottle when you see a bug ambling across your petunias, pause.  Is it harming the plant?  Or is a good guy just moseying by? 

Think before you squish or spray.  When you take out good bugs, you’re taking out your allies. 

Instead, send me a photo or bring me a sample so I can identify the insect and suggest controls if needed.  Let’s work together to keep – and build – your army of helpful insects. 

To know beneficial insects is to love them.  So let’s meet a few.  

Spiky ladybug larva
Alligator-like ladybug larvae eat thousands of aphids and other bad bugs. Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood

The ladybug is the good bug poster child.  It happily dines on thousands of aphids in its lifetime as well as scale, spider mites, whiteflies and more. 

Lacewing larva
The larvae of delicate adult lacewings eat aphids, lace bugs, caterpillars, beetle larvae, mites and more. Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood

Lacewings are beautiful lacy-winged (hence the name) insects.  They may look delicate, but are voracious hunters that eat many different dastardly bugs. 

Some wasps are parasitic, laying their eggs on harmful insects.  There is even one called the scoliid wasp that lays its eggs on Japanese beetle grubs in the soil. 

Other generalist predators like praying mantids and assassin bugs stalk and eat a wide variety of insects – good and bad – to keep their populations balanced.  

I’m betting that now that you’ve met a few beneficial insects, you’d like to know how to attract more to your yard.   Here are a few tips. 

First, give them the basics: food, water and shelter. 

Many insects need pollen and nectar.  So make sure something is blooming from spring through frost to provide both food and shelter.  Native plants support native insects best.

Many beneficial insects are small, risking life and limb to sip water from a traditional birdbath.  So put water in shallow containers. A pot saucer will do. 

Some plants are better at attracting beneficial insects than others. Herbs with their tiny flowers are sized just right for pint-sized beneficials.  

Daisy-shaped flowers such as coneflowers and zinnias are magnets for good bugs as are plants with umbrella-shaped flower clusters such as yarrow and dill. 

One of the best things you can do for beneficial insects is to stop or limit your use of chemical insecticides. Chemicals don’t discriminate, killing both good and bad bugs.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t control garden pests.  I’m just suggesting a kinder gentler approach.  

Insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and Bt – the holy trinity of organic controls – manage most bad bugs.  Add cultural practices such as handpicking, row covers and crop rotation and you have an arsenal of crackerjack controls. 

Don’t let bugs bug you.  Most are friends.  Embrace them.  Encourage them.  And deal swiftly with the few bad bugs with organic controls.  They work. 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

This year, host bees in your garden

The sun and the warm(er) days are back! Oh gosh, it felt like forever! And now, of course, I am feeling like I have to get out there and start doing stuff outdoors! And because I love the little creatures, one of the things I want to do is make sure that this year my garden becomes a pollinator’s paradise. If you are in the same boat as me, come along and let’s talk about how to make our gardens inviting to pollinators!

Like us, pollinators need food and a place to live

We hear a lot about pollinators and the plants we can grow to help them. And it is true, to live and thrive pollinators need food, and that food usually comes from plants. Indeed, to sustain pollinators, it is key that we provide food for them. However, we often forget that they need something else to thrive: a place to live! And because there are SO MANY types of pollinators, let’s for this one time focus on only one group, the bees!

Even though many people think only of honeybees when we talk about bees, most bees do not live in colonies like honeybees do, and are in fact solitary. Solitary bees are indeed the vast majority of bees. In Maryland we have about 400 different species of them, going from tiny to very large. Check out this awesome free book about bees from our region.

Unlike honeybees, each of these wild bee species has different nesting requirements, and many of them will nest readily close to our houses if they find the right conditions. Here I will give you some pointers on how to create those conditions to not only attract bees with flowers, but also help them live close to your garden.

How do wild bees live?

Unlike honeybees which lay eggs throughout the growing season, wild bees usually lay eggs only at certain times of the year, meaning that their life cycle is different from that of honeybees. Most solitary bees in fact lay eggs at only one point throughout the growing season (for example, only in the spring, summer, or fall).

orchard bee nest
Wild bees lay eggs in their nests and leave food to them. When the larvae hatch they find the food and can finish their development in the absence of the mother. Photo: USDA ARS.

Whenever they are ready to lay eggs, bee mothers start looking for a place to nest, and it is only during this time that they will be building their nests. Once the eggs are laid, the mother leaves and those eggs stay in the nest along with some food (usually pollen mixed with some nectar). After hatching, the larvae eat the food the mother left for them, and they continue feeding and growing until they are ready to leave the nest as adults, usually the following year. This means that for most bees there is no or very little maternal care of the offspring, and most of the time spent in a bee’s life is as a larva, growing and getting ready for the “outside” world.

Where do wild bees live and how can I help them nest?

Wild bees have a variety of nesting preferences. While some nest in the ground, others dig holes in wood, use already-existing cavities, or parasitize other bees’ nests by consuming the reserves of their hosts (yeah, bees can be sneaky like that!). Understanding this is important, because depending on the resources we provide for nesting, different species will be attracted to our gardens.

Keep some ground undisturbed – Ground-nesting bees

green sweat bees
The green sweat bees are very common in Maryland and can be seen often digging on bare ground and visiting flowers. Photos: J. Gallagher; Ilexin.

If you would like to support these bees in your garden, you can make sure to leave some of your garden soil undisturbed or bare. If you do this, you will realize that many bees will be attracted to that section, and if you pay attention, you will realize that many are actually coming in and out of the ground! These are your ground-nesting bees! In Maryland, some ground-nesting bees that you may have seen visiting flowers are the small and shiny green sweat bees.

Leave some wood in your yard – Carpenter bees

carpenter bee
The large carpenter bees nest in shallow galleries they excavate in soft wood. Photo: Missouri Department of Conservation.

In our region, these bees are represented by the very large shiny carpenter bees of the genus Xylocopa. These bees have strong mandibles they use to excavate soft wood in order to build their nests inside. If you would like to attract these bees to your garden, make sure to leave relatively large branches and logs available for them to nest in. For this, you can turn a corner of your yard a bit wilder, and at the same time, leave branches there to allow other beneficial organisms to establish in your garden.

Bee hotels! – Cavity-nesting bees

bee hotel
Cavity-nesting bees are attracted to bee hotels. Here we have a particularly elaborate bee hotel; you can go simpler at first and then evolve into this if you’re just starting. Photos: M. Lankford; Piqsels.

Unlike carpenter or ground-nesting bees, these bees do not create the cavities, but rather use those that already exist. This is the group of bees that is attracted to those cute bee hotels one can build or buy. A natural option for supporting these bees is also by not cutting down to the ground the hollow stems of some plants at the end of the season. Many bees nest within these stems, and will die if they are chopped-off during the winter. Species in this group of bees nest in the spring, summer, or fall. For this reason, if one wanted to use bee hotels to attract these bees, one should establish them early in the spring.

There are a multitude of types of bee hotels, with some involving little tubes that can be removed, holes drilled into wood, a collection of small hollow twigs and branches, paper rolls, etc. Check out this site to see many options. Independently of the type of bee hotel you want to use, something important is to make sure that you keep the cavities clean for the bees to develop in healthy conditions. Failing to do so may actually harm the bees we are trying to support, because they may continue to be attracted to the nesting site we are providing but may eventually become sick and die because the place was unhealthy.

Now it’s our turn!

I really love watching bees build their nests, independently of what they look like. Maybe I’m just nosy, or maybe this is really why I’m a biologist, but that peek into these little animals’ lives makes me feel connected to them and keeps me in awe at how wonderfully diverse and fascinating life can be. When you are planning your garden this year, I invite you to consider the flowers for your bees, but also count in where you plan to have them live! And then, later in the season, go check those places out; I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

New! Anahí is starting an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!