Our Friends in the Gardens

Contributed by Marvel Clyde, Owner, Colorscapes Greenhouse and Nursery

Beneficial insects thrive in healthy gardens keeping pests in check and adding to the sensory pleasures of being outside. The number of actual damaging pests is miniscule when compared to the many beneficial insects; including predators like ladybug larvae that feed on aphids. If in doubt (friend or foe), I reach out for my UNR Cooperative Extension booklet instead of reaching for those non-specific, persistent, chemical pesticides that are no more than a short-term, quick fix, and no match for the long-term, natural solutions that beneficial insects provide. The booklet is available online at: https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ag/2006/sp0608.pdf

Many millions of years ago, when the first flowering plants began to bloom, some wasps made a switch from hunting prey to gathering pollen for their brood. Perhaps they were hunting for insects that visited flowers and ate some of the pollen along with their prey. It didn’t take long to find the advantages of consuming pollen over hunting. Pollen is also rich in proteins and doesn’t fight back so it is easy to imagine why they were happy to become vegetarians. Providing flowers rich in pollen and nectar along with water and shelter nurtures insects and their offspring for generations.

CLEAN WATER in a shallow bowl with stones serves as a watering hole for many insects while butterflies prefer to gather around mud puddles to get the minerals they need. Planting a diversity of flower types grouped together (less travel between blooms means less energy expended) along with flowering trees and shrubs further increases the number of individual species you will attract. Nectar provides food in the form of carbohydrates, essential amino acids, and needed moisture. Pollen is produced in the flower by the anther and is carried by insects from one flower and left on the stigma of another. Pollen provides high-protein nutrition which helps insects to grow and to produce eggs. Some plants produce light pollen that floats on air, for others, it’s dense and sticky requiring “help” to move about. Bees gather pollen, seen as orange-yellow saddle bags on their hind legs, for feeding the next bee generation.

POLLEN AND NECTAR are the rewards that a flower gives to pollinators. Annually, we plant colorful flowers in containers on the deck so we can watch insects and hummingbirds move from bloom to bloom gathering nectar and pollen efficiently. Pollinators see a limited spectrum of colors and petals have adapted by choosing a color to attract a specific pollinator. Bees do not see red, but do see yellow, blue and ultraviolet. One wasp species pollinates an orchid with petals that look, smell and feel like a female wasp. Butterflies see red colors including purples. White flowers are visible to night pollinators like bats and moths. Petals sometimes use two colors, for instance red and yellow, to attract more than one kind of pollinator and petal patterns resembling landing strips guide some pollinators to zero in on the pollen.

MOST BUMBLEBEES ARE SOCIAL INSECTS that form colonies with a single queen. The colonies are smaller than those of honeybees, growing to as few as 50 individuals in a nest. These nests are small compared to honeybee hives, which hold about 50,000 bees. Many species nest underground, choosing old rodent burrows or sheltered places and avoiding places that receive direct sunlight that could result in overheating. Other species make nests above ground, whether in thick grass or in holes in trees. My first experience with a colony happened a few years ago while cutting back some poppies in an island bed surrounded by lawn. I came across a dense cluster of cut grass which, in my zeal to tidy up, I tossed onto the tarp. A very large, very upset bumblebee set upon me. I was so concerned about my own well-being that I shooed her away. Then I saw the entrance tunnel to the colony and realized she was simply shooing me away from an underground nest. A nest covering that I’m sure took a great deal of time and energy to create, which I destroyed in a few seconds.

“With 4,000 species from tiny Perdita to large carpenter bees. There were no honeybees in America until the white settlers brought hives from Europe. These resourceful insects promptly managed to escape domestication, forming swarms and setting up housekeeping in hollow trees, other cavities or even exposed to the elements just as they had been doing in their native lands. Native pollinators, in particular bees, had been doing all the pollination in this continent before the arrival of that import from the Old World. They continue to do a great deal of it.” More at: https://bugguide.net/node/view/475348

The importance of solitary bees is also widely unappreciated. After watching a few videos, I even went so far as to shop for and hang a solitary bee “house” found online. Worth watching videos can be found at: http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/solitary-bees-pollinators/


When you’re out tending to the garden, avoid wearing brightly colored apparel that will attract foraging insects, and above all, enjoy the flowers as much as they do!