Farming, Foodshed

Insects + Pollinators

Insects are so numerous that, with the number of known species approaching 900,000, they compose 80 percent of all life on Earth. Insects are so numerous that, for every single one pound of humans, there are 300 pounds of insects. Insects are so absolutely amazingly numerous that it’s estimated that there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive at any given time. Like right this second.

Here in the United States, we’re aware of 91,000 different insect species, but it’s estimated that there are 73,000 other insect species of which we’re unaware. Beetles lead the population, followed by flies, with the ants/bees/wasps family third, and moths and butterflies the fourth most common.

How many of those are pollinators? Let’s go back to counting by quintillions. With numbers like those, it shouldn’t be surprising that the sheer volume of insects quite literally in your own backyard is astounding.

We like to use sweep nets, sold in our Healdsburg store, to discover what’s living in our grass or hedgerows. Like a long butterfly net — but injurious to and therefore not recommended for butterflies — a sweep net can be used in a gentle figure eight motion over tall grass, its mouth just touching the vegetation.

Gently emptied into a shoe box or onto paper, the sweep net disgorges its contents, a full world of mostly helpful creatures — just 1 percent of insects are considered “pests” — which we mostly ignore.

But pollinators belong to worlds we can no longer ignore. We simply need them too much. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, insect pollinators exclusive of honey bees produced $10 billion worth of crops in 2010; honey bees alone produced an additional $19 billion worth of crops that year.

Each of us, however, truly can help. If everyone with the ability to plant even a few pots on a 10th floor patio did so with an eye to the health of our pollinators, we could make an enormous difference.

When considering your garden or patio pots this spring, think of what you can do to benefit our pollinators, those insects, bees, bats, moths, wasps, hummingbirds, and others who help create one third of our food.

You can invite them in, for one thing, and offer a little hospitality. Insect “hotels” are a fun family project to build together or an attractive feature to purchase and add to your garden. (We’ve got some gorgeous ones onsite at SHED and have built our own, shown above.)

But insects aren’t picky. They’re happy with some straw or wood, boards, pierced logs, bricks, brambles, and downed branches. What they don’t like are sterile environments brimming with pesticides and monoculture plants, like corn and grapes, that don’t require insect assistance to reproduce.

Early spring bugs, like such “solitary” bees as the Mason — which have no queen or hive — are a fascinating and important insect to support. Providing a bee “condo” for the Mason is a terrific way to introduce children to the cunning ways of nature. Hollow bamboo rods or straws packed into a can that is nailed on a tree or wall makes a perfect home for Masons and allows you to watch its lonely comings and goings.

We like to encourage bugs that eat the actual pests that eat our plants, like lacewings (they love aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies, thrips and acari eggs), earwigs (aphids), solitary wasps (aphids), and ladybugs (aphids). Anything that eats aphids is fine by us!

We also like diverse flowering plants that bloom at different times, grow to varying heights, produce single flowers with one ring of petals, array in pollinators’ favorite blue, purple or yellow colors, and are native to our area. A garden built of healthy, microbe-rich soil produces plants that are naturally resistant to the occasional invasion, no pesticides needed.

Available onsite at SHED, we find Jessica Walliser’s Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden to be an essential text for poison-free planting resulting in a healthy garden with an insect-positive environment.

Among her recommendations is the establishment of a hedgerow, an old-fashioned term that calls to mind the daily trompings of Jane Austen’s characters but which can really be little more than an interplanting that assays to stay in an even(ish) line. Composed of small trees and shrubs interspersed with annuals, perennials, and grasses, hedgerows provide shelter to small animals and birds, too.

Writing about hedgerows, California botanical educator Frederique Lavoipierre enthuses that “no hedgerow is complete without buckwheat,” adding that “California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) may be without peer in attracting great numbers of beneficial insects, pollinators, and predators of numerous pests.”

However you do it, consider the unseen this planting season, those quintillion legion who, on their daily rounds, provide the foods upon which we depend. Providing them with a place to live and some lovely flowers to browse seems only hospitable.

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