Helping pollinators in small green spaces

Spring is almost almost aaaaaalmost here, and if you’re like me, you have already started visualizing what flowers will grow where and what pollinators you’ll need to keep an eye out for. Unlike in other posts, where we talked about how to help pollinators in large spaces, today we’ll talk about how to help them in very small yards, balconies, porches, or other small spaces.

small garden in front of a town home
Having a small yard is no reason to not help pollinators. Small yards can be great spaces to support them! Photo: G. Cripezzi.

Small yards

If you have access to a small yard, plenty of opportunities are available! Of course, you will not be able to plant lots of large plants, but that doesn’t mean you cannot plant anything. When offered little space, you can use not just the horizontal, but also the vertical space. While it is possible to cover the ground with a mix of perennials and annuals, there are also possibilities of installing trellises on which flowering vines can grow.

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Planning your garden to support specialized pollinators

Looking out my window, as the ground is covered with snow and I am getting ready for another snowstorm coming tonight, it seems ironic that I have been spending many hours these days ordering seeds and planning my garden. While I am thankful that the winter brings some rest to the soil in my garden, planning this season brings me happy memories of the scents and buzzes in my yard during the growing days… which reminds me that I should also plan for my little buzzing pollinator friends when I plan what to grow this season. In today’s blog, I want to chat about how we can plan for many types of pollinators, with a special focus on planning for specialists and not just for generalist pollinators.

Specialist pollinators – never heard of them?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators visit plants to feed on nectar and/or to collect pollen to feed themselves or their offspring. However, pollen is not just there for pollinators to feed on; pollen is central to plant reproduction, so plants tend to make it both attractive to pollinators but hard to digest. For this reason, and in order to be able to properly digest the pollen, pollinators are often specialized in their pollen choices. This is because being able to digest the compounds that plants add to their pollen to make them hard to eat requires some level of adaptation, which often involves a trade-off with the ability to eat anything. There are, of course, many levels of specialization, and, while many pollinators feed on many plant families, others are more specialized than that, and feed on only specific plant genera or even species! For us gardeners, this means that if we want to support many different pollinators, we need to make sure that we are also providing for those very specialized pollinators as well!

Luckily for us, the floral choices and pollen specialization is known to some extent for Maryland and Eastern USA bees (see this site to learn more). For this reason, we know that many specialized bees in our region are also rare or uncommon… another reason to try to provide resources for them!

Who are pollen specialists in our region?

Many known pollen specialist bees in our region belong to bee genera Andrena, Colletes, Osmia, and Melissodes, which have many species considered rare or uncommon in Maryland and Mid-Atlantic.

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Master Gardener Project Makes Discovery Commemorating the Remarkable Life of Jane Gates

building a raised bed garden
John and Julian begin work on a teaching garden at the Jane Gates Heritage House in Cumberland, Maryland

The Jane Gates Heritage House located on Greene Street in Cumberland, Maryland is a non-profit museum and community center started by John and Sukh Gates to honor the spirit of John’s third great-grandmother, Jane Gates (c. 1819 – 1888). Jane lived most of her life enslaved, most likely in or near Cumberland. She obtained freedom when slavery was abolished in Maryland in November 1864.

Jane Gates Heritage House
Jane Gates Heritage House

Jane purchased the house and lot for $1400 in 1871 in the current location of 515, 511, and 509 Greene Street. Jane Gates is listed in the 1870 U.S. Census in the house at 515 Greene Street as a nurse and a laundress, age 51, living with two of her children and two grandchildren. The house at 515 is Jane’s original dwelling. The houses at 511 and 509 were built decades later by one of Jane’s daughters and a granddaughter. Jane Gates is also the second great-grandmother of Dr. Paul Gates and his brother Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a scholar of African American culture at Harvard University and host of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Jane’s house is featured in his PBS documentary, “African American Lives II.”

The mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House is to empower, enrich, and enhance the lives of all through faith, education, and history. Along with African American history, the President of the board of directors, Sukh Gates, is passionate about teaching elementary-aged children crucial life skills such as healthy living and growing and preparing food. 

To reach this goal, Sukh wanted to transform the backyard of the house into a teaching garden. She asked for help from the Master Gardeners in Allegany County to design and install the garden. I developed a plan based on Sukh’s goals and the available land at the house. The plan called for four raised beds for vegetables, a small bed for fruit along an existing wall, and a pollinator garden along the fence that borders the alley.  

creating a new teaching garden
Construction of raised beds
raised bed gardens
Gardens planted in June

The Jane Gates Heritage House received a grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to renovate the house but not the grounds. Sukh and I applied for a grant from the Allegany Work Group of the Western Maryland Food Council to build the raised beds. In March 2020, the Food Council awarded $600 to cover the cost of materials and soil. Josh Frick, my husband, constructed the raised beds on site. Our families then worked together to install the raised beds and fill them with soil. In June, Master Gardeners donated and planted fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in the gardens. The local wildlife posed quite a challenge, prompting the Gates family to erect a fence to protect their fledgling garden. By mid-July, Sukh excitedly picked the first zucchini.  

This project fostered a growing friendship between Sukh and me and our respective organizations. I regularly consulted with Sukh over the summer and into the fall. Sukh, new to gardening, was amazed by the beauty, the challenges, and the serenity afforded by the garden.

In the course of inspecting the pollinator garden for weeds, I noticed a plant that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. This plant looked familiar, like a flower of some kind, but it had not been planted by Master Gardeners. It was a volunteer that had re-seeded and spread itself from times past. It grew along the alley behind the house. I pondered this a while, and it finally came to me. This plant is soapwort! 

Soapwort, whose botanical name is Saponaria officinalis, may be more familiar to you as bouncing Bet or wild sweet William. European colonists brought soapwort to America because it had several essential uses. Sap from the roots and stems can be combined with water to create a lathery soap solution traditionally used to clean delicate textiles and woolen fabrics. This plant naturalized throughout North America. Further inquiry reveals that bouncing Bet (Bet is short for Bess) is an old English nickname that means washerwoman. The hook was set; Sukh and I wanted to learn more.

herbs
Herb garden

This discovery prompted Sukh and me to learn more about 19th Century laundering techniques. In the 1800s, the boiling of textiles in a large kettle was part of the laundering regimen. An archeological dig in 2019 led by Oxbow Cultural Research principal Suzanne Trussell found remnants of burned wood behind the house, near to where the soapwort grows. The wood was in the ground at an angle, which may indicate Jane used a tripod to hold a large kettle over a fire. Could this have been the spot where Jane spent long hours laboring? Could Jane have planted the soapwort nearby because she used it as part of her cleaning process? We can’t know for sure, but it’s fascinating to consider.  

Finding soapwort created a lead-in to explore Jane’s life as a laundress and to search for further relevant connections. The more we delved into history, the more Jane Gates came alive. Jane’s probable daily routines, methods, and challenges became clearer. Suddenly the life of Jane Gates became tangible. This is the mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House, after all, to learn from Jane by connecting the past to the present. The providential discovery of this inconspicuous plant shed light on the life of this remarkable woman, Jane Gates, and for that we are grateful.

If you would like to learn more about the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their Facebook page and if you would like to donate to the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their GoFundMe page. 

By Sherry Frick, Master Gardener Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension, Allegany County.

What should I plant to help pollinators?

bee on penstemon flowers
Bumblebees often can be seen feeding at the flowers of foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), which blooms from late May through June. Photo: C. Carignan

We all want to protect pollinators and it seems that the best way to do that is to have a lot of flowers so they can feed on them. But if you’ve ever checked a seed catalog or visited a plant nursery, you may be overwhelmed by all the options. How do you choose what to plant? In today’s post we will chat a bit about the why’s of these choices and we’ll share some resources that may be useful next time you’re trying to make those decisions.

Each pollinator species is unique

As all species in the world, each pollinator species has unique reproductive, nutritional, and habitat requirements to survive. For example, a bee that nests in the early spring needs food and habitat that will be different from those of another bee that nests in the summer, or of a butterfly that emerges from its metamorphosis in late spring. For an early-spring bee it will be key that flowers are available early in the season. Those will be of no help to a summer bee. Likewise, a late spring butterfly will be able to enjoy the nectar from flowers that were not available to the early-spring bee.

Along with the timing of emergence, each pollinator is unique in its anatomy and sensorial abilities. For example, long-tongued bees can reach the nectar of flowers that may be too deep for short-tongued bees. Similarly, because of their extremely long mouth parts, hummingbirds and butterflies usually can access very tubular flowers that are just out of reach for other pollinators.

It’s not only the shape of the mouth parts of the pollinators that will play a role in what flowers they can feed on. Their general body shape and physical abilities will also define this. For instance, butterflies can’t regulate their flight as well as hoverflies or bees do, and because of this, when they visit flowers they need to have large surfaces on which to land, while bees and hoverflies may not really need them.

swallowtail butterfly on butterfly weed
Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo: UME Home and Garden Information Center

Finally, different pollinators have different sensorial abilities, with some being able to see some parts of the light spectrum that others may not. On this, butterflies and hummingbirds can see many different colors including UV light, bats that pollinate are blind, and bees have a broad spectrum of light vision but can’t differentiate many of the colors we can.

So now you may be asking yourself why I am talking about all of this. How does this relate to the topic of this post: how to help pollinators with flowers? Bear with me, I’m getting there!

How should I choose what to plant to help pollinators?

As you may be guessing by now, because each pollinator has slightly different life requirements, if you want to help as many pollinators as possible, your best shot is trying to diversify your garden or flower bed. I like to think of this as if I were holding a dinner party at my house and I want to have as many of my friends enjoy the food.

If I know that some of my friends are vegan, lactose intolerant, or allergic to nuts, I will make sure that they find something to eat at my table. If I don’t have anything for them, they will be hungry and sad, and they will also probably decline any future dinner invitations from me (how sad is that!?). So, I like to think about these pollinator plantings as a party I am hosting for a whole season, and where I will make sure that all my little friends always have something to eat so they come back next time I invite them over!

pollinator garden
A diverse flower garden includes flowers of many different colors and shapes and will have different plants in flower throughout the season. Photo: Carol Norquist

The key to attract the most pollinators is diversifying our gardens! Ideally, the choice of plants should include different flower colors, shapes, and sizes available throughout the season. This means that there will be always several different types of flowers blooming at the same time, even though no one plant may be flowering throughout the season. Along with this, if one is trying to attract specific pollinators that have very specific food requirements (for example, oil-bees, monarchs), one would also have to make sure that the pollinators’ required food is also present (take a look at this recent post to learn more: Why do pollinators visit flowers?)

Another aspect to consider when deciding what to plant is the fact that native pollinators usually get appropriate nutrition at the right time of their life cycle if they feed on plant species that are also native to the area. For this reason, if one wants to help pollinators, native plant species are usually recommended, and in particular, avoiding invasive exotic species is key. In fact, invasive species, in addition to not providing ideal food for native pollinators may also displace native plant species, reducing even more the diversity of your flower bed and the pollinators who will visit it. Finally, this also means that a “good” flower mix for pollinators from Europe is probably not going to be ideal for Maryland pollinators.

perennial flower garden
This perennial flower garden includes a variety of species that bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Photo: C. Carignan


But then, what should I do?

There are so many things to think about! This is truly a brain twister, right? Luckily for you (and me) many biologists, ecologists, and conservation specialists have been thinking about this for a while. Today, floral mixes have been created that are appropriate to different regions of the United States. In the state of Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources has created a neat list of species you can plant depending on the conditions on your land. The Xerces Society has also put together a list for plants appropriate for different states. Alternatively, if you would like to just favor specific pollinators, you can target their preferred plants. For finding seeds and starts for these plants, take a look at this great resource the Maryland Native Plant Society has put together!

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

Why Do Pollinators Visit Flowers? Hint: It’s Not Just for Nectar and Pollen

Other than because I think they are pretty, I love looking at plants and their flowers. In fact, one of my pastimes has become figuring where and what is the reward that pollinators get out of their visits to their favorite flowers. You may be now thinking that my pastime is a bit nonsensical, since it is pretty clear that pollinators get pollen and nectar from flowers, so why bother checking? Well, actually, that is only partially true; did you know there’s a myriad of rewards that pollinators can get from their flower visits?

In today’s post I want to tell you a bit about some of those other rewards; the ones that fascinate me so much. Let’s talk about special floral pollination rewards and where you can see them in real life!

We like essential oils, some pollinators like floral oils!

The first time I heard about floral oils my mind was blown in such a way that I became obsessed with them, to the point that now a large part of my research program focuses on them. Floral oils are a reward that many types of plants offer to their favorite pollinators: oil-bees.

But don’t let me get ahead of myself! Floral oils are a special type of oil – different from essential oils – that are produced and presented to pollinators on different parts of the flowers of some plants. Independently of what exactly they look like, all these plants are visited and pollinated in a very specialized way by oil-bees. Unlike honeybees, these oil-bees are solitary and make their nests in the ground. These oils help these bees line their nests to waterproof (!!) and strengthen them. Along with that, they also mix the oils with pollen and feed that ‘pollen ball’ to their larvae.

Macropis oil bee
The whorled yellow loosestrife (left; photo: Eli Sagor) is one of Maryland’s native plants that offers floral oils to their Macropis oil-bees (right; photo: Don Harvey). Note the shiny load of oils and pollen on the hind legs of this Macropis!

Oil flowers are present all around the globe. In our region, they are represented by several species of the yellow loosetrife plant genus Lysimachia. With their floral oil rewards, these loosestrifes sustain the rare oil-bees of the genus Macropis. At the level of the country, most oil-flowers (and their specialized pollinators) are restricted to the Southern USA, where they are visited by the large bee genus Centris. Some of these plants are the wild crapemyrtle, the prairie bur, and the purple pleatleaf.

Hungry? Please, help yourself!

Along with nectar, pollen, and floral oils, food for pollinators can come in many different shapes and forms. In fact, some flowers even offer parts of their flowers to their pollinators. In cases like this, flowers develop special structures – usually around their petals – with the only function of becoming food for pollinators. Flowers providing this type of reward are usually pollinated by beetles, who can use their strong mandibles to chew on and eat the special structures.

calycanthus
Sweet shrubs display nutritious structures to their pollinators, small sap-feeding beetles of the family Nitidulidae. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

One of the coolest examples of the use of this type of reward is our very own sweet shrub, Calycanthus floridus. This spring flowering plant (flowering right now in Maryland!) attracts small beetles that enter the flower and stay there for quite some time. To maintain and support them while they are helping the plant reproduce, the sweet shrub flowers englobes them during parts of their flowering (this is why sometimes these flowers seem to be opening and closing throughout the day) and present small extremely nutritious structures at the base of their petals. It is on these structures that the beetles can feed on to stay strong and healthy while they are on the flowers. If you have one of these flowers in your yard, or happen to see them in one of your walks, take a second to stop and check them; you may get to meet their little beetle friends! 

Need a hand taking care of the kids? Here I am!

Some other flowers have established even more intricate relationships with their pollinators, and what they provide is not just food, but also a house! Because in these plants the offered reward is a place for the larvae of these pollinators, these interactions are called ‘nursery pollination’. Here, the pollinator visits the plants, collects pollen, and sometimes even actively places pollen on the flower tip. By doing so, the pollinator makes sure that the plant seeds develop. This is important, because their larvae will need some of them to feed on throughout their development.

yucca moth
Joshua trees (left; photo: Shawn Kinkade) are some of the most iconic plants of the US Southwest. These plants offer a brood site to their super-specialized small moth pollinators (right; photo: Judy Gallagher).

Along with this being the reward we see in a plant we love to eat (figs!), one of the most spectacular examples of the use of this reward is found in an iconic plant of the deserts of the US Southwest, the Joshua tree. Indeed, Joshua trees produce flowers that are visited by a group of moths, the Yucca moths. These moths visit the flowers, collect their pollen, and then literally push it into the flower tip to actively pollinate it. Because the moths lay eggs on the flowers, this assures that the flower develops seeds so the larvae have something to feed on. What is fascinating, though, is that these larvae never eat all the seeds, so this really is a win-win relationship between the plant and the moth.

To see how this is done, take a look at this video!

yucca moth video
Larvae of the Yucca moths feed on a Joshua tree’s seeds. To make sure that there is something for their larvae to eat, these moths actively pollinate the plants, exchanging a brood site for pollination, and in the process display some of the most fascinating behaviors one can see in pollinators. Check out the video to see it for yourself! Video: University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

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