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Being a gardener is a bit like being a superhero. You start with seeds, soil, and water and with a little bit of patience, tending and luck, you end up with a beautiful space that doubles as a source for fresh flowers, edible fruit and vegetables — and with the right choices and some simple actions — lots of buzzing bees and other insects.“Pollinators are a fundamental part of the world, and without them humans can’t exist,” says Bryan Quinn, the founder of One Nature, an ecological consulting firm and garden center in Beacon.
An incredible 35 percent of our food crops depend on bees and other pollinators like moths, wasps, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even bats, which are responsible for pollinating somewhere between 75 to 90 percent of all the world’s flowering plants, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Yet, pollinator populations are in decline. According to the Bee Informed Partnership’s National Colony Loss and Management Survey, between April 2019 and April 2020 alone, beekeepers reported losing nearly 44 percent of their honeybee colonies. Other pollinators across the United States are also in trouble, including the iconic Monarch butterfly, which recently qualified as an endangered species.
A wealth of evidence shows that pesticides such as neonicotinoids popular with conventional corn and soy farmers kill pollinators. Extreme weather made worse by the climate crisis is also hurting the plight of the pollinators, as is loss of habitat and food, according to Conservation International.
Pollinator gardens and pathways to the rescue
As more people have learned about the environmental threats facing honeybees and other pollinating insects, pollinator gardens and pathways have become all the buzz. From 2015 to 2018, garden center associations reported a 92 percent increase in demand for pollinator-friendly plants and services. Local gardening stores are increasingly teaching workshops on pollinator plants, communities are paying attention to how their open space can create pollinator pathways, even TikTok users have given tours of their home pollinator gardens.
The first pollinator pathway was conceived of in Seattle over 10 years ago. It gained momentum in the Northeast when an environmentalist in Connecticut began a corridor of native dogwood trees among neighbors in 2016, and the idea of creating contiguous native plant corridors has been spreading along the Hudson Valley since. Hudson Pollinator Pathway
“People understand very quickly that if they don’t have pollinators around their gardens there would be no food,” said David Campolong of The Phantom Gardener, which has hosted pollinator garden workshops since the late 1990s after homeowners started showing interest in organic gardening. “Our customer base is always thinking about it now.”
While pollinator gardens have been popular for some time, a new way of thinking about how these gardens can work together, along with open spaces, has recently emerged. Though the term “pollinator pathway” emerged from a Seattle woman who began the first one over 10 years ago, these sometimes literal, but mostly metaphorical corridors of pollinator-friendly plants have been popping up locally in just the past year or so.
Grassroots groups like Hudson Pollinator Pathway and the Putnam Pollinator Pathway, both of which formed in 2020, work to establish pollinator-friendly habitat and food sources by educating the public on creating their own pollinator gardens.
The goal, says Jennifer Carchidi, a volunteer with the Hudson Pollinator Pathway based in Hudson, is to encourage individuals to fill their home gardens with pollinator-friendly plants, so that between those gardens, parks and other open spaces there is a continuous habitat and food for them.
“For a pollinator, your garden can be a small oasis,” said Carchidi. And as more gardeners heed the call to plant with pollinators in mind, either in their yards, parks or community spaces, these pathways then become “a lifeline amongst green, manicured lawns that need fertilizer, possible pesticides or herbicides, and even more water than a garden or meadow of native plants.”
“We want them to realize that their little garden can have a huge impact,” said Carchidi.
Lynn Bernstein, a Master Gardener volunteer with the Putnam Pollinator Pathway, wishes the name pollinator pathway did not take off, because it is usually not as literal as a path, and because native plants benefit more than just bees and butterflies. She prefers the phrase, “Homegrown National Park,” coined by influential naturalist author Douglas W. Tallamy, whose 2009 book Bringing Nature Home, was one of the first to discuss declining insect species and how to bring them back by ditching lawns and re-introducing native plants.
“It’s a metaphor for being sustainable and being aware of the environment,” Bernstein says of the term, pathway. “Everyone can make a difference — whether they grow native plants on a patio or on five acres. If we all did that, we would be creating a better environment for all wildlife — not just pollinators.”
The One Nature garden center in Beacon is filled with native plants that attract pollinators, some of which might traditionally be thought of as weeds. “Many things people consider weeds are actually good for pollinators. Goldenrods for instance are a really critical fall food source,” says founder Bryan Quinn.One Nature
The importance of native plants
Carchidi stresses the importance of using a lot fewer chemicals like pesticides to maintain a home garden or, better yet, none at all, and planting native plants in your own garden.
Adding plants that are native to the Northeast such as golden alexanders or wild blue lupine for the spring, native sunflowers and milkweed for the summer and aster and goldenrod for the fall to a home garden can help protect these insects by providing habitat and food for bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators, Carchidi suggests.
“Even if you see bees and butterflies on plants in your garden, if they’re non-native plants, they might not have the same nutritional value [to them],” Carchidi said.
That green lawn with non-flowering grasses might look neat and pristine, but pollinators benefit from dandelions, white clovers and other flowers we think of as weeds.
Though most pollinator pathways are metaphorical, the Putnam Pollinator Pathway has a literal path of flowering native plants outside the offices of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Putnam County in Brewster. It offers a virtual, 360-degree tour, too.Jen Lerner
“Weed is really just a term for undesirable plants,” said Quinn. “Many things people consider weeds are actually good for pollinators. Goldenrods for instance are a really critical fall food source.”
The Hudson Pollinator Pathway Facebook page and the Putnam Pollinator Pathway, led by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Putnam, offer resources for those interested in learning more about the right flowers to plant. A list of where there are pollinator pathways in the Northeast and how to get involved can be found at pollinator-pathway.org.
Creating pollinator gardens can be a challenge in the area thanks to the large deer population, which likes to eat most things. Still, a few of Campolong’s tips for a home pollinator garden include: having a good source of water in the garden; using a diversity of flower shape, color and height; planting large drifts of the same flower — which make it easier for pollinators like bees to forage as they only eat one type of flower per trip; and avoiding the use of pesticides when possible.
The payoff is more than just a buzzing garden or pathway. “If we just focus on a purely biological and aesthetic approach to pollinators we’re missing the point,” said Quinn. “There’s a psychological, religious, spiritual role pollinators play in connecting people to the landscape.”
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