Pollinator Habitat

Pollinators, especially bees, are responsible for the pollination of nearly 90 crops in North America and 30 percent of what we eat. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, honey bees and wild bees (bumble bees, leaf cutter bees, alkali bees and mason bees) pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year. Without pollinators, one-third of fruits and vegetables would not exist as we know them. Many plants such as almond, apple, blueberry, sunflower, clover and canola cannot reproduce without the help from insect pollinators. Pollinator populations have rapidly decreased in recent years. Winter honey bee colony losses have ranged from 30 to 90 percent, at least twice the 15 percent loss considered sustainable. There are approximately 20,000 species of wild bees in the world, and they are disappearing from areas where they were once common.   

Scientists currently believe pollinator population declines are caused by multiple factors acting together including diseases, parasites, exposure to pesticides, and lack of nutrition. One reason for poor pollinator nutrition is that modern landscapes contain both fewer and less diverse flowers resulting in a scarcity of pollen and nectar, and pollen and nectar of low nutritional value. When bees have access to a good diet, we have access to good nutrition through their pollination services and the bees are better able to engage their own natural defenses. 

What we are doing to help

Habitat establishment and enhancement for native pollinators has numerous potential benefits that may include decreasing soil erosion and improving water quality, fertility, and soil health as well as supporting other wildlife populations. Beneficial insects can also help control agricultural pests.

The Pomme de Terre River watershed area in west central Minnesota was once a sprawling prairie, home to beneficial pollinator species and prairie vegetation. Now, however, we’ve seen a devastating decline of beneficial pollinator species and a disruption to the remaining native prairie ecosystem. The lack of diversity or availability of pollen and nectar sources can cause certain pollinator populations to develop health disorders and ultimately die off. Beginning in the fall of 2018 and continuing through 2021, the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) will begin restoring a 17-acre portion of grassland along the City of Morris bike path to a native prairie habitat with the hopes of restoring the area so beneficial pollinators can flourish.

The West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), in collaboration with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), created a pollinator evaluation plot near the WCROC Pomme de Terre Overlook. The evaluation plot consists of five different mixes of native forbs and grass, and oil seed crops containing canola, echium, cuphea, and calendula. 

The objectives of our pollinator habitat include:

  1. Conduct evaluation studies to determine the adaptation and performance of various plant materials for benefit to native pollinators.
  2. Develop evaluation plots to be used as demonstration sites and outdoor classrooms to provide information about supporting pollinators to the general public.
  3. Document establishment and management techniques, as well as plant performance.

Discover 2015 findings in our Flowering and Pollinator Attractiveness of Native Forb Mixes (.pdf) presentation. 

How to create your own pollinator garden

The public can help by planting pesticide-free flower gardens to create pollinator habitats. Better-fed pollinators will be able to better resist diseases and parasites. Pollinator gardens can be targeted to help honey bees, wild bees, or other pollinators such as butterflies. 

  • Choose a sunny location for your pollinator garden.
  • Avoid disturbing areas where pollinator activity is already present, such as ground nests.
  • Leave downed logs, leaf litter, flower stems and bare spots to provide nesting and overwintering habitat for pollinators. (Check city ordinances for rules about dead wood).
  • Choose seed mixes for prairie plantings that have a high percentage (40% or more) of flowering plants.
  • Select native plants for which local pollinators are well-adapted.
  • Plan for continuous bloom throughout the growing season.
  • Plant single-flowered cultivars versus double-flowered cultivars, (doubled-flowered cultivars frequently lack pollen or nectar).
  • Select several different flower shapes and colors to attract a variety of pollinators. Bees and butterflies are especially attracted to blue, purple, violet, white, or yellow flowers.
  • Plant flowers in large clusters.
  • Avoid using pesticides on your pollinator garden. If you must use a pesticide choose a contact (rather than systemic) pesticide and apply in the evening when bees are not present.