After a long winter, it’s finally spring in Minnesota. The days are noticeably longer, the songbirds are returning and new life is emerging. If you’re like me, you are eager to get outside, soak up the sunshine and get your hands dirty in the garden. As you make your spring gardening plans and think about heading out to clean things up, consider the needs of pollinators who could use our patience and help.
Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are essential to the reproduction and survival of over 80% of flowering plants. Pollinator populations have been declining at alarming rates due to a variety of human-related factors, including habitat loss, climate change and pesticide use. Many home and community gardeners have taken steps to help revive vulnerable pollinator populations, including adding more flowering plants, creating more pollinator-friendly habitats and waiting until spring to clean up plant and leaf debris from the previous growing season. In addition, you may want to consider the following pollinator-friendly tenets and clean-up practices.
Practice patience—Pollinators need food sources, and until it’s warm enough for flowering plants to produce nectar and pollen, many pollinators will not emerge from their nests. Many bees are ground nesters, and some overwinter in the hollow stems of dead plants. They aren’t likely to emerge until temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. Some butterflies overwinter in leaf piles or in chrysalises attached to stems, and they may not fly until temperatures consistently reach 60 degrees. If it’s too early to mow the lawn or plant tender annuals and vegetables outside, it’s likely too early for pollinators.
Inspect as you collect—As you cut down and gather plant stems from the last growing season, examine broken stems for ends that are plugged with mud or vegetation (evidence of bee activity) and leave these in your yard.
Reserve a spot for a protected pile—Gently pile leaves and stems in a part of the yard where you can let them be until temperatures are warm enough for the remainder of bees and butterflies to have emerged in early summer. This will provide more protection than directly composting or burning leaf and garden debris.
Wait to mulch—Mulching too much and too early can delay the soil from warming up for ground-nesting bees. When you do apply mulch, leave some areas unmulched, so ground-nesting bees can easily access the soil.
While you wait for temperatures to warm up, you can keep planning for continued pollinator protection. As you look for plant sales and greenhouses, seek out growers that avoid neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to decrease in bee populations. If you plan to mulch, look for a reliable source that’s chemical-free before it becomes hard-to-find.
Cervantas, Keely. “Spring has Sprung! Tips for Bee-ing Kind to your Gardens This Year.” Conservation Minnesota. https://www.conservationminnesota.org/news/spring-has-sprung-tips-bee-ing-kind-pollinators-your-garden-year
Hudson, Gail. “Remember to ‘Bee-Friendly’ as you clean up your garden!” University of Minnesota Extension Yard and Garden News. https://blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu/2019/04/remember-to-bee-friendly-as-you-clean.html
Wheeler, Justin. “Don’t Spring Into Garden Cleanup Too Soon!” Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. https://xerces.org/blog/dont-spring-into-garden-cleanup-too-soon
Melissa Andersen (she/her/hers) is an educator and a gardener, particularly interested in native plants and pollinator-friendly garden practices. She has been with the Ramsey Country Master Gardener program since 2019.