The majority of flowering plants require animal pollinators such as bees, butterflies, birds, and bats to produce fruit and reproduce. Having stable pollinator populations helps support biological diversity in a garden and has been shown to improve fruit quality and production. However, numbers of these pollinators have been decreasing due to habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use, threatening the survival of many crops. By designing the garden to create habitat and fulfill the needs of pollinating animals we can help to attract populations and the ecosystem services they bring.
Although honey bees are the most well-known pollinating insects and tend to attract the most attention, native bees like bumblebees, mason bees, and sweat bees are also very important for agriculture. There are over 800 native bee species in Canada, and unlike honey bees most are solitary and nest in the ground. The large diversity in size and shape of native bees means that they pollinate a wide range of flowers and crops. Unlike social bees which are generalists, solitary bees tend to specialize on certain species that they have coevolved with. Because of this specificity, native bees are often more efficient at transferring pollen than honey bees. We can encourage them in the garden by providing the food, shelter, and water they need.
Diversity of plants is the key to almost everything in permaculture, and feeding pollinators is no exception. Large monocultures that all flower at the same time and then leave bees with nothing are very harmful to bee populations. Having a wide range of canopy layers, heights, colours, scents, and blooming period provides food for the greatest number of species over the longest period of time. We have also tried to include many perennial native flower species along the border of the garden, on the swale berm, and distributed within garden beds. Herbs and annuals vegetables are also good for pollinators and help attract bees to the garden, despite not being native for the most part. Some plants like borage and comfrey are typically seen as weeds, but are excellent for attracting bees and have many other uses.
Native pollinators require shelter from weather and predators, and sites for nesting and roosting. Butterflies also need specific plants to host their caterpillars. The perennial flower border in the garden stretches the length of the site, creating a corridor from the food forest to the medicinal and vegetable gardens. Among the flowers, wild bergamot and Asclepias (butterfly milkweed) are butterfly hosts. We have also preserved a portion of the milkweed that was already present on the site and have started spotting some monarchs! Since each species requires slightly different habitat, having diversity in the landscape is also important. Although most of the garden is covered by layers of mulch, the bottom section has been left as untouched field, as the “wild zone” that is common in permaculture, and the area surrounding the garden is short grass, which some species also like. There is also the possibility of building an insect hotel and/or a bat house later on that will provide habitat and shelter.
Accessing water is our biggest issue, not only for wildlife but for the plants as well! The hose from the nearest water source only goes as far as the entrance to the garden and we’ve been filling up barrels and watering cans to move it around. Any kind of running water or pool, pond, or small container of water for drinking and bathing is beneficial for pollinators, but may require a more complicated solution.
As we try to build this ecosystem and habitat, it is important to constantly be observing and adjusting. Now that things are starting to grow and bloom, I’m excited to see what will come with it. Not everything we do will be perfect, but by keeping a critical eye and our goals in mind, we can keep making it better, for ourselves and the organisms we share it with.
Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Native Pollinators and Agriculture in Canada”. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2014. Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2014/aac-aafc/A59-12-2014-eng.pdf. Accessed 23 July 2017.
Engels, Jonathan. “Attracting Bees to the Garden and Keeping Them There Without a Hive”. Permaculture Research Institute. 17 Feb. 2017, https://permaculturenews.org/2017/02/17/attracting-bees-garden-keeping-without-hive/. Accessed 23 July 2017.
Lyon, Briana. “How to Attract Beneficial Predators & Pollinators”. Permaculture Research Institute. 7 Aug. 2012, https://permaculturenews.org/2012/08/07/how-to-attract-beneficial-predators-pollinators/. Accessed 23 July 2017.
Wojcik, Victoria and Amber Barnes. “Selecting Plants for Pollinators: A Guide for Gardeners, Farmers, and Land Managers in the St. Lawrence Lowlands Ecoregion”. Pollinator Partnership Canada, http://www.pollinator.org/PDFs/Guides/Quebec-Planting-Guides/StLawrence-2016.pdf. Accessed 23 July 2017.