Pollinators: Critically Important Partners

by Catherine Haug, August 12, 2012

The summer issue of Organic Matters, the magazine of Montana Organic Association (MOA) had a great article on Pollinators: Your Stealthy Partners, by Anna Jones-Crabtree of Vilicus Farms (in Havre (2)), with Jennifer Hopwood of the Xerces Society (3).

At a recent short course on pollinators in Great Falls, the only farmers in attendance were Organic! Now that tells you something … For key points from the short course, with my notes added, read on.

Key Points from the short course

  • There are over 3000 species of bees native to North America. Most are solitary [don’t live in hives], and over 70% are ground dwellers. [The most commonly known ground dweller in our area is the bumblebee].
  • Pollination is critical for one in three mouthfuls of food we consume. In the US, this equates to $18 – $27 billion in crop value.
  • In one study, canola growers can make more money on their land if 30% is left uncultivated to support native bees when there is an absence of honeybees. [See hedgerows, below, for more]

Some great rotation crops that are pollinator-friendly include:

  • sunflowers
  • buckwheat
  • safflower
  • flax (note that this plant can also provide fiber for weavers)

During the short course, attendees went outside to catch few pollinating bees for a closeup look: bumblebees, metallic sweat bees and digger bees. “If you’ve not had the opportunity to look at a pollinator at work up close you are missing out on one of the most amazing activities on the planet. It’s one thing to see a bee flying around, but quite another to look at them up close with bright yellow pollen packed onto their bodies, heaped high.”


(This section is by C. Haug)

An important way to conserve ground-dwelling bees is to plant and maintain hedgerows between crop fields on a farm, or around the perimeter of your home garden. These plantings of shrubs provide protection and home to ground-dwelling bees like bumble bees. And if at least some of the shrubs are also berry-producers, you can reap the benefit of the berries, too. Some native plants suitable for hedgerows in our part of Montana include (4):

  • Juniper (various varieties)
  • Elderberry
  • Snowberry
  • Serviceberry (a.k.a., Saskatoon or June Berry)
  • Lilac (non-native)
  • Honeysuckle (shrub, not vine)
  • American plum (native to eastern Montana)
  • Chokecherry
  • Dogwood

Another great alternative is a ‘living fence‘ or espalier. Consider using dwarf varieties of fruit-bearing trees to create the espalier. This provides blossoms for the pollinators, and fruit for the grower. I’m working on this for the north and east boundaries of my garden and yard. See my post Espalier: Living Fences (5) for lots more.

Additionally, hedgerows may be flowering plants (either perennials, or ones that will reseed themselves) favored by bees. Consider (2):

  • sanfoin
  • yarrow
  • prairie coneflower

(See also Wildflower.org: Montana native flowering plants

Other things you can do is to install native bee nesting sites (such as bee-blocks for mason bees). Consider also providing raptor perches on top of the poles set for the bee nesting sites. [Just make sure the pole is well secured and will not sway in the wind or with ground vibration, as that is essential for the survival of the bee larvae.]

References and Additional Information

  1. MOA: Organic Matters (the summer issue is not yet available for download from the webpage, but will be as soon as the fall issue is published)
  2. Rooted Montana (Vilicus Farms, Havre MT)
  3. Xerces.org for Invertebrate Conservation (Portland OR)
  4. Trees and Shrubs in Montana (pdf from MSU Extension)
  5. Espalier: Living Fences

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