CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Saving pollinators one garden and one person at a time

Irene Shonle, CSU Extension in Gilpin County

At this point, most people have heard about the dire situation of Monarchs butterflies.  The World Wildlife Fund and others documented a 59 percent decline in monarch populations this year.  Monarchs get a lot of press because of their beauty and the spectacle of their generations-long migration, and their plight helps to also shed light on the issues facing other pollinators.
Monarch butterfly courtesy Dave Cappaert,

Honeybees are struggling, too, and many native pollinators are in serious trouble, according to Eric Mader, assistant pollinator program director with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Several species of bumblebees in the United States have declined substantially over the past 2 to 3 decades, according to a study led by entomologist Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The declines are thought to be due to habitat loss/fragmentation, pesticide use, climate change, and non-native pathogens.

Scientists are particularly tracking five declining species of bumblebee, including the Western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis – and there have been recent sightings in our area! For more information, go here:, or to join a citizen science project documenting bumblebee distribution, go here:
Bumblebee photo courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Protecting, restoring, and enhancing habitat is the best way to reverse the declines in bumblebee populations, and the best thing is that this is a project where individuals in our own mountain yards can actually make a significant contribution!  So often, you hear about one environmental disaster after another, and can feel somewhat helpless and depressed, but here is a win-win situation where your efforts will help the pollinators and make your yard more beautiful.  Bumblebees are gentle creatures (often likened to flying teddy bears), and will rarely sting unless threatened, so don’t be alarmed at the thought of attracting them to your house (unless someone in your house has a severe allergy).

Bumblebees need three types of habitat to survive: plants on which to forage for pollen and nectar, nesting sites, and places to overwinter.  Usually the latter two don’t require much effort on our part (other than leaving them undisturbed); so here are some tips on what to plant to attract our native pollinators:
  • Plant a diversity of species (best choices are native) so your yard will provide bees and butterflies with nectar and pollen from early spring through fall.  Great flower choices include Golden banner (Thermopsis divaricarpa), Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata), Yarrow (Achillea lanulosa), Lupine (Lupinus argenteus), Rocky Mtn. beeplant (Cleome serrulata), Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), and all Penstemons.  Flowering shrubs can also be good choices – look for Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii), and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
  • During hot, dry periods, provide water in shallow birdbaths or pools where pollinators can easily land. Some wasps and bees need mud to build their nests, and butterflies like to gather in muddy puddles.
  • Reduce or eliminate use insecticides, especially ones that state that they are harmful to bees or butterflies on their label. If using an herbicide, target only invasive weeds, and don’t spray when bees or butterflies are present.

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