Horticulturalist outlines pollinator friendly practices

Ray Mueller

Fond du Lac -  As his “take home message” of the day, Jung Seed Company staff horticulturist Allen Pyle called for turning lawn grass into garden space with plants that are friendly to and safe for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Speaking at the 2017 “Day in the Garden” sponsored by the Fond du Lac County Master Gardeners Association, Pyle described the typical lawn as “useless as habitat” for those species. At a minimum, he suggested letting dandelions reach full bloom before lawn grass is mowed and replacing shaded or wet spots where grass doesn't grow well with other plants.

Unlike some other advocates with similar recommendations, Pyle said those plants can consist of both native and non-native species. What's important, he emphasized, is to establish and maintain a diversity of plants that provide food and shelter for pollinators and beneficial insects throughout their season of activity.

Allen Pyle

Buzzing 'bout bees

On a related point, Pyle specifically welcomed the relatively newfound interest in raising bees in backyards and in providing habitat that's suitable for multiple species of bees. He noted that bees provide pollination that's worth billions of dollars every year to growers of fruits and vegetables.

Pyle pointed out that populations of both wild and managed bees continue to suffer because of loss of habitat. In particular, he cited the continual removal of hedgerows and fence lines on agricultural land, the accompanying increase in field sizes, the loss of weed growth at field edges, the cutting of alfalfa before it reaches bloom stage, the use of pesticides in all kinds of settings, and the effects of climate change.

No 'smoking gun'

Lots of attention has accrued to the phenomenon of “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) with honeybees, with many possible causes for this being stated, Pyle observed. Citing the experiences with honeybees in Australia, which doesn't have CCD, he emphasized that the application of neonicotinoid pesticides is not “a smoking gun” for CCD in the United States and elsewhere.

Among the possible causes which remain, either singly or in combination, are attacks by mites (both the internal tracheal and the external varroa), diseases, disruptions in the timing that various nutrients are available, and the appearance of pesticide residues in pollen, Pyle stated. He said those residues can originate from everything to applications on pets for fleas and ticks, for control of mosquitoes, and from substances applied to agricultural crops.

What has received less attention is the possibility that fungicides can injure the guts of honeybees, making them a candidate in the CCD phenomenon, Pyle stated. Look for beneficial microbial fungicides such as Serenade and Actinovate instead, he recommended.

Safe practices

Instead of turning to pesticide applications at the first sign of plant pests, consider the other available methods of control, Pyle advised. Depending on the situation, those include checking plants for egg masses and physically removing them, using row covers to keep insects such as cucumber beetles away until the plants start to bloom, handpicking beetles and dropping them into soapy water, using a vacuum cleaner, or placing traps in large gardens, he stated.

Not all organic products are safe for pollinators, Pyle pointed out. Avoid home brew recipes and anything containing tobacco and always follow the label directions on registered products, he emphasized.

When doing so, apply the product when the pests are active, at the proper place on the plant, when the pests are still young and small, and not when the plants are in bloom, Pyle continued. He mentioned Bt as a top choice of the larvae of beetles, insecticide soap for soft bodied pests, diatomaceous earth for slugs, snails, and leaf feeders, and Neem oil for multiple uses.

The bacterial toxin spinosad has broad application uses on vined plants while Zonix is an acceptable choice for controlling late blight on plants such as tomatoes and potatoes, Pyle observed. Horticultural oils can smother aphids and whiteflies and can be applied on still dormant roses and fruit trees when temperatures are above 40, he added.

Plant preferences

There's a huge array of plants that are friendly to pollinators and other beneficial insects, which include predators such as spiders (recently estimated to consume 400 to 800 million tons of other insects around the world per year), ladybugs or beetles, and the praying mantis, Pyle indicated. He also mentioned parasitoids, which lay eggs in and kill a host as the larvae grow.

Among the many plant choices, Pyle's “absolute favorite” is echinacea (purple coneflowers), followed by the heavy nectared globe thistle, roses, the early season blooming helleborus and squills, asters, sedum, goldenrod, salvia, rudbeckia, daisies, milkweeds, phlox, buddleia, liatris, zinnia, hyssop, butterfly weed, blanket flower, helenium, sunflowers, and members of the carrot, bean, legume, mint, mustard, and brassica families.

For specific pollinators, Pyle cited the multiple penstemons, cardinal flower, and monarda which attract hummingbirds and single flowered marigolds for butterflies. Choices for an early spring bloom are led by the pasque flower along with crocus, anemone, and chionodoxa, he said.

An overall plant selection scheme friendly to pollinators and beneficial insects, based on either their nectar, color, or scent, would consist of a lineup which provides food throughout the growing season, offers resins from evergreen trees, and gives access to water, Pyle pointed out.
That this will happen on more properties is considerably more likely than it was in the past, Pyle believes. He's buoyed by the apparent “new attitude” among many people on understanding and doing what's needed to attract bees and butterflies.

His entire presentation at the “Day in the Garden” conference is posted on the website. He can be reached by e-mail to