How to attract more Colorado pollinators to your garden and support local populations

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of 2 columns about how you can support pollinators in your garden.

June was named Colorado’s Pollinators Month to create awareness about the many ways you can support local pollinator populations. Let’s review some ways anyone can learn more and take action from supportive gardening practices and to getting involved locally.

Here in Colorado, we are fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful, beneficial pollinators and plants. To learn more I attended last week’s Planting for Pollinators webinar with experts hosted by People and Pollinators Action Network (PPAN). If you missed it, you can view it on PPAN’s YouTube channel. At the webinar, panelists shared some ways we can all take action for pollinators whether or not you have a yard to overhaul into a pollinator garden. One takeaway is that pollinators are a way to talk about human wellbeing, When we are surrounded by lots of flowers and greenery with healthy soil, we humans feel healthier and so do our pollinators. A more integrated eco-system includes “helping pollinators, [and] we are supporting people as well,” according to Joyce Kennedy, Director of Programs for PPAN.

Get involved in Colorado pollinator politics

Let’s dig into community and politics as a broader way that everyone can support pollinators by influencing green spaces.

Fun fact first, Colorado approved a pollinator license plate option starting 2022.

In other 2022 CO politics, the bill, Colorado SB22-199, passed to conduct a statewide study to protect native pollinating insects. However, Colorado SB22-131, the Pollinator and Human Health bill, failed this year. That one focused on the reduction of neonicotinoid insecticides in school areas. The bill focused on the use of pesticides in the decline of Colorado native bee population health as pesticides impact all pollinating or visiting creatures not only pests.

You can learn more through a new campaign, More Play Less Spray , that PPAN launched to shift urban environments towards more organic and native planting. One big action we all can take is to learn more about the impacts of pesticides on invertebrates to guide your own decisions and gardening. There is the IPI Database with research summaries hosted by The Xerces Society. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation also offers a Pollinator Protection Pledge that you can sign to “grow pollinator-friendly flowers, provide nest sites, avoid pesticides, and spread the word.” PPAN has a Pollinator Safe Property pledge you can sign also.

Take action where you live

You can volunteer with organizations that support pollinators in your local neighborhood and community. One example this summer is to reduce the use of use of pesticides in Denver parks by hand weeding. Two non-profits, People and Pollinators Action Network (PPAN) and Wild Ones, partner with Denver Parks and Recreation horticulturists to weed in various parks around Denver all summer long. Read more and join their volunteer list.

If you’re in an apartment or building without personal outdoor space, look to the nearby green spaces surrounding you to support pollinator habitat development. This could be property turf grass areas or dog park space or a nearby park. PPAN offers a downloadable guide on creating pollinator safe communities and can help you work with businesses to pledge pollinator safe practices and spaces. But if you do have patio or balcony, pollinators may visit pots up to about the 4th floor so get into container gardening.

For folks with yards, you can take action by dedicating an area to pollinators. Turf grass uses more water resources and often synthetic fertilizers and herbicides than pollinator gardens. If you need turf, consider how much you need and carve off an area to build a pollinator garden corner. Ideally, this is an undisturbed corner where pollinators can come and go without kids and dogs tromping around.

Planting for pollinators is a long game as pollinators need nesting and over-wintering areas that are undisturbed. Dead stems, piles of branches, and exposed ground are all good materials for insect nesting. Avoid cutting back or cleaning up leaves at the end of the summer season leaving that corner a bit more wild than the rest of your yard.

Demand pollinator-friendly pest management

Due to insect pollinators’ short life cycles, it can be easy to add in a few functional additions like flowering plants. Here’s what to know before you rush out and buy plants out but rather find pollinator-friendly or bee-safe growers. Many purchased plants may be toxic for pollinators. In supporting pollinators, many organizations then recommend shopping at nurseries that do not use chemicals to treat during growing – such as organic or native plants. As this can be hard to know, general advice is to buy from nurseries who grow on-site over those who ship in, especially from out of state, when possible.

In the Planting for Pollinators webinar, Laurel Starr, a pollinator advocate in Golden, reviewed local pesticide use in the Denver area nursery industry. For the Denver area, you can read a citizen-sourced list of buying bee safe plants from Kelli Marco’s Sustainable Neighborhood Network’s work. According to this piece, the Front Range has some good options for systemic pesticide-free, grown-on-site plants and/or native plants. Buying bee-safe plants is another movement and the Xerces Society has a guide for retailers and shoppers.

If you do purchase plants that you are not sure about, assume they have been treated at some point. Research shows that systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinoid, are present in the plant up to 18 months after treatment. You can minimize harm to your home ecosystem by shaking off most of the soil in the trash and removing the blossoms for the entire first season after planting.

Shift into Colorado native plants

A final pollinator action you can make is building habitats by adding in more native plants. While there are many flowering options for pollinators, native plants support native populations in that they cater to their unique needs and wants relevant to their evolution. As a Colorado transplant myself, planting for pollinators offers an opportunity to learn about our soil, sun, and needs for water conservation. Kennedy with PPAN says that shifting to more native plants helps because they do not require as many resources, are more successful long term, have deep roots soil and water absorption, and less time intensive gardening long term. Native plants also tend to be more pest resistant thus allowing for less pesticide application. They also tend to be more drought tolerant aiding water conservation efforts.

What’s native exactly? A quick example, honey bees are native to Europe and often folks think of them in pollination conversations. Yet Colorado is home to 946 native bee species. Research shows that native plants are four times more attracts to these native species than much of the common ornamental flowers sold in commercial nurseries and stores.

To learn more specifically about planting for native bees, Colorado Master Gardeners has a fact sheet. To learn more about CO native plants and why, check out the resources from Colorado Native Plant Society.

Overall, remember that to support pollinators is to be intentional about what gets planted to promote biodiversity for all sorts of pollinators, have flowering blooms throughout the season, and take care of the habitat and soil by what we put (or do not) on it.

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