The 5 best steps Lehigh Valley homeowners can take to increase pollinator populations.
Our reliance on pollinators as a human race should not be understated—one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of them. In the United States, honey bees and wild bees contribute $20 billion each to agriculture and industries that depend on agriculture. But pollinators are in trouble. In the United States beekeepers have lost ~30% of their hives each year since 2006. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Pennsylvania’s average honeybee die-off rate had climbed to 60%—the sixth highest in the nation for that year. Although population changes in non-bee pollinator species, such as moths, butterflies, beetles, and bats have not been as closely tracked, we do know that many are at risk, or even edging toward extinction.
According to Amy Faivre, associate professor of biological sciences at Cedar Crest College, “Habitat loss and the disturbance of natural areas are two of the main threats to pollinators in the Lehigh Valley.” As local residents know, the Lehigh Valley has experienced many drastic land-use changes in the past few decades. Particularly common is the conversion from farmland to residential developments. This has led to a lack of sustenance and habitat area for many species of pollinators.
Faivre adds that some farmers maintain woodlots or sections of their fields which act as uncultivated buffer zones between crops. These wild areas provide habitat via leaf litter, dead sticks, and undisturbed soil that many native pollinators use to build nests. They also supply a variety of vegetation which provide pollen and nectar, two vital plant materials for pollinators.
Climate change, pesticides, loss of native vegetation, and diseases (particularly among bees) are the other core causes of pollinator decline, and they are all interconnected. Due to climate change, plants are now blooming a month earlier than they did 45 years ago. This leaves pollinators without food and plants unpollinated.
Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, are another massive issue. The use of pesticides kills pollinators and impairs their health and ability to complete innate tasks, such as finding their hive. Neonicotinoids are particularly lethal as they attack an insect’s central nervous system. Unfortunately, in 2018, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era ban on neonicotinoids in wildlife refuges. In fact, this summer, the USDA halted its annual surveying of bee populations altogether.
Often times, diseases and parasites which impact bees, such as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) are a combination of human-induced causes, such as pesticides, and natural causes, such as mites. The good news is that there are meaningful steps we can take to support pollinators– and any step to help one species helps all others.
So: What can you do to help pollinators and increase their numbers, both in your yard and in the Lehigh Valley?
1. Plant native plants
Switching one’s garden to mostly native plants is the biggest and most important step the average person can take in limiting pollinator decline.
Native plants are just that—native to the region in which they evolved. Thus, they have specific adaptations and play a crucial role in their ecosystems. Without them, local pollinators (and all wildlife) struggle to find food and shelter from plants that originated far from PA. Lucky for us, the Lehigh Valley is home to an amazing native plant nursery which makes this process much easier. Edge of the Woods Nursery is in Orefield and home to thousands of native plants. They offer tours, landscaping services, native plant starter kits, consultation services, etc…
Louise Schaefer, co-owner of Edge of the Woods, recommends that these are the best native plants for pollinators:
- Sunny areas: Mint, Aster, Goldenrods, Garden Phlox, Spring Ephemerals, and Coneflower
- Shady areas: Foamflower, Woodland Phlox, Jacob Ladder (Polemonium Repans), Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Eximia), Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis)
Schaefer advises that some ‘common names’ of flowers are sometimes used by both native and non-native species, so it is best to go by the botanical name in parentheses if listed. She also advises that gardeners plant vegetation which blooms sequentially, as nothing blooms all year round.
2. Limit pesticides
Don’t spray pesticides unnecessarily, advises Shaefer “If you see an insect or insect damage, research to find out what the insect is, it’s life cycle, how much damage it will actually make and what targeted steps you can take to control it if necessary. Remember, if nothing is eating your plants, your plant is not playing a role in the ecosystem.”
3. Stray from the “manicured” lawn
Think about how much ‘perfect’ lawn you really need, advises Shaefer. Reduce your lawn size and plant native gardens and mini-meadows in the rest of the area. Additionally, sometimes doing less is more. Leaving some leaf litter and branches can do a world of good, as they are part of the insect life cycle. Furthermore, bark mulch can harm insects, and thus pollinators. It is best to use a leaf-based mulch, or none at all, when possible. If you live in Bethlehem, Bethlehem Backyards for Wildlife is an amazing group for those interested in sustainable gardening practices.
- Support local organic farmers
- Pull out invasive plantsNon-native, invasive plants out-compete native vegetation. Some pervasive PA examples include Giant Hogweed, Japanese Hops, and Japanese Spirea. Full list of Pennsylvania’s invasive plants, click here.
People can, on a very local scale, do positive things to address this decline, as opposed to larger scale environmental issues. People can think creatively about how they manage their own land— whether it’s their yard, a field, or a solar farm—they can ask themselves, ‘how can I help bees and other pollinators?’—Christina Grozinger, Director of the Center for Pollinator Research; at Penn State
Organic farming maintains healthy and stable pollinator population rates much more successfully than its conventional counterpart. Buying organic supports both pollinators and the farmers who utilize non-toxic practices. Buy Fresh Buy Local Greater Lehigh Valley is a great program that connects consumers to local farmers.Find farmers near you.
irector of the Center for Pollinator Research; Distinguished Professor of