ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: pollinator habitats

by Grace Bonney

image sources, clockwise from top left: cook almost anything, home orchard society, mpezalla, backyard critter habitats, comcast forums, ashley english, ventnor permaculture

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the birds and the bees. I mean that in the most literal sense, not in any corporeally suggestive one. I’m wrapping up a book on beginning beekeeping and have been attending honeybee workshops and classes lately, looking online for beekeeping information, and chatting with other honeybee enthusiasts. To put it as Meg of Brooklyn Honey recently described it, I’ve been “beeking” out on honeybees.

All of this talking, researching, and pondering about bees has naturally lent itself to the discussion of pollination as a whole. Honeybees are the rock stars of the pollination world. Their bodies are remarkably adept at transferring pollen across and between flowers. However, if honeybees are the lead singer of the band, then all of the other pollinators constitute the band’s musicians, the back-up vocalists, the manager, the publicist, the road crew, the accounting agents, the record label associates, the fans-in short, everyone else that makes sure the lead singer gets the job done, and does the job well.

Pollinators of all sorts play a crucial role in the environment. According to the Xerces Society “The ecological service they provide is necessary for the reproduction of nearly 70 percent of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species.” In other words, if you eat it, chances are it was made possible by the efforts of the world’s pollinator population (including products derived from animals, who rely on a number of pollinated crops for their own food).

Unfortunately, the incalculably valuable services put forth by native pollinators, offering their prodigious efforts completely on a pro bono basis, are at risk. Due to a number of factors (among them heavy pesticide use, habitat loss, and foreign diseases introduced into the greater environment), pollinator populations are dwindling. Speaking on behalf of pollinators everywhere, I’d like to suggest they’re well overdue for some reciprocal love. And so, today’s small measure, which could have massive cumulative effect if implemented on a wide scale (the ultimate goal of small measures, anyways!), promotes the creation of native pollinator homes.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Ashley’s post and tips for housing local pollinators!

In North America, there are over 3,500 native bees. These bees are enormously valuable pollinators, helping to bump up crop yields. Keeping their numbers high provides a bit of padding as long as honeybee populations continue declining due to Colony Collapse Disorder . A number of these native bees are solitary, living not in hives, but as bachelors and bachelorettes. Others, such as bumblebees, are hive-minded, much like honeybees. Furthermore, ladybugs and lacewings, other wild, native pollinators, help in controlling greenfly and aphid populations, which might otherwise damage, and even kill, garden plants.

A number of truly beautiful houses for these beneficial creatures can be found online. This mason bee house , made of bamboo, is particularly lovely, as is this cheeky bee-shaped offering. The Plant Directory features homes for bumblebees, lacewings, ladybugs, butterflies, moths, and more.

If you’re more of the do-it-yourself type, whipping up some habitats at home is inexpensive and easy. In fact, my husband made three (!!!) Wednesday afternoon over the course of several hours. Using materials we had on hand, he drilled holes into a large piece of firewood and several smaller pieces of wood attached together to create two houses, and inserted bamboo reeds into an old coffee can to fashion the third. Martha Stewart offers a similar bamboo house, using waxed twine in place of the can, while Sunset Magazine presents a drilled wood panel tutorial.

Finally, I came across this article about a bit of human pollinator fashion. Created by Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design students Jacek Barcikowski and Laura Boffi, the Human Bee Pollinator suit allows humans to gather and spread pollen from food crops, work otherwise performed by honeybees and their pollinating compatriots. Considering that pollination by hand is already occurring in parts of the world where honeybees have disappeared, the Human Bee Pollinator suit might not be so far-fetched. However, creating and fostering native pollinator habitats (in addition to keeping honeybees and continuing to examine the causes of CCD) might be a considerably less intensive (and more fashionable!) solution.

Do you have any tips for drawing wild pollinators to your area? Have you ever planted crops specifically with pollinators in mind?

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  • I’ve been interested in beekeeping in the recent months and would really like to get started some day! What is your book going to be called/released so I can keep a look out for it?

  • Hi Roz! The beekeeping book will be the fourth in to my “Homemade Living” series. It’s not officially titled yet, as it won’t be available until April 2011, when it’s companion “Home Dairy” will also be out. It will most likely be called “Keeping Bees with Ashley English.”
    My first two books, on “Keeping Chickens” and “Canning & Preserving” will be out in two months, on April 6, 2010.
    In the meantime, I’d encourage you to seek out other beekeepers or beekeeping organizations in your area. They’re a great resource for getting started with beekeeping.

  • Plant a garden! There were bees all over my garden this summer, they seemed to move from plant to plant as it bloomed, and especially loved the sedum and nepeta. I think I’ll try making a bee house- where should I put it? Hung up? Ground level? Sun or shade?

  • What are the chances do you think of wasps taking over a honeybee home? I have a raised flower bed and wasps tend to build their nasty nests in there. I wouldn’t want them to take over a little home for honeybees.

  • Beth-Site the pollinator habitat somewhere off of the ground, preferably facing southeast, and as near to a pollination area as possible. They like their homes dry and warm, so even the eve or side of a building would work well. Lacking that, you could put the house on a stand.

    Alisha-The post above addresses native pollinator habitats. Honeybees aren’t considered native, having been brought into North America primarily via Europe. Wasps generally live in ground, in muddy areas while honeybees live above ground in hives. While it is possible for wasps to gain entry to honeybee hives (if they can make it past the guard bees), it’s not terribly likely if the beekeeper is staying on top of hive maintenance.
    The solitary and mason bee homes listed above wouldn’t necessarily appeal to a wasp, as wasps are hive-minded. So, solitary bee habitats, such as discussed above, should be fine in your raised flower bed, while honeybee hives are a totally separate issue.
    I’d like to issue a disclaimer, however, that I’m certainly no entomologist. For further information, you might want to consult a insect manual or contact your local county extension agency office.
    Hope this helps!

  • I don’t want to beekeep, per se. Although I love the finished product – my dad used to do it, and some of my earliest memories are of him bring in the dripping comb, and how excited we all were to grab a chunk. The kitchen would be filled with the sound of happy humming (appropriately enough) as we chewed all the goodness out of the honeycomb. …And now I’m drooling a little…

    But as more of an apartment girl, I’d be interested in a follow-up article on what types of things can be planted on my balcony to feed the little pollinators! I can see fun links to container gardens, and different region suggestions…

    Thanks for this!

  • I am in the early stages of planning this years vegetable garden and spotted the “Bumblebee Margin Mix’ from my seed supplier. The mix contains Borage, Phacelia and Essex Broad Red Clover which are all said to encourage the bees to your garden and aid in pollination … you can find it here: http://www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk/bumblebee-margin-mix-seeds-pid3164.html . But I’m sure you can find these flower seeds separately at your local supplier.

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Right now our flowering plum tree is flowering. When I walk on the sidewalk beneath it, I hear the most wondrous noise. It is the sound of 100’s of honey bees enjoying the pollen from the flowers.

  • I have been thinking about this stuff the last 6 months, so I´m very glad and surprised by this amazing article. My house is often choose by bees to built their homes I will definitely help them!! Thanks.

  • Wonderful post! My husband and I have kept bees for about 14 years now. You never stop learning new things.

    The USDA has several labs across the country which carry out bee & pollinator research. We were very lucky for many years to live near the lab which focuses on non-honeybee pollinators. You can visit them at

    BTW, dried stalks of phragmites make perfect nesting tubes for blue orchard bees. Hang up a bundle and they will come!

  • Thank you for a wonderful post! I’m currently on the lookout for more information on beekeeping -my father and I have plans to try our hands at it this summer. The information about conservation as well as the ideas for bee habitats are really helpful!

  • Thanks SOOO much for this. It got me working on my own bee house today. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible without a hive.

  • What a wonderful post! I also love bees so much and worry about the implications the loss of pollinators can have on our food chain. Thanks so much for putting all this great info out there!

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