Parks & Open Spaces Best Practices for Pollinators

In a world where habitats are being replaced by urban sprawl and commercial agriculture, creating habitat corridors for pollinators is increasingly more important to their survival.

It's been calculated that two million acres of land in the U.S. are swallowed by urban sprawl each year. Urban and suburban communities often have open, underutilized spaces that can be transformed into vital pollinator habitat. It's critical that land managers adopt best practices for pollinators to help protect native bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles and other pollinators.

Open spaces include

Pollinator habitat best practices for parks and open spaces
Restoration on underutilized lot on public land.
photo: Minnesota Native Landscapes
  • Parks and community gardens
  • Public lands such as abandoned lots, unmanaged land, or turf
  • Public Utility Right of Ways (vegetation underneath power lines and on top of buried power lines and pipes)
  • Roadsides, round-abouts and highway rest stops
  • Shorelines
  • Strips of land in between lots or buildings

Thoughtful, well-planned best practices can create healthy environments for pollinators to live in and also help reduce maintenance needs, reduce erosion, improve water quality, provide water filtration, increase property values and offer ecological benefits to the surrounding landscapes. People want to live in communities with wildlife, clean water and land.  Pollinator-friendly landscapes also give people a sense of community pride.

Threats to pollinators

  • Habitat loss occurs as native vegetation is replaced by roadways, manicured lawns, cropland, and infrastructure development. Pollinators are losing food and nesting areas critical for survival. 
  • Pesticides include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.
  • Degradation and fragmentation occurs when conditions decline due to factors such as pollution, invasive species and over-utilization of natural resources.  This includes streams degraded by runoff of sediments and chemicals from cropland, or large blocks of habitat cut into small pieces by roads and housing too small to sustain a species.
  • Plant and animal species are out of sync due to climate change. For example, flowering plants may occur farther north or at higher elevations as a response to warming temperatures and may become out of range for their pollinators.
rusty patch bumble bee bee balm
Endangered Rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis). photo: Heather Holm

Pollinators are a keystone species for a healthy ecosystem.  Over 200,000 plant species worldwide depend on pollination in forests, meadows, gardens, natural areas and agriculture. 

    Increase native pollinators through best land management practices

    • Restore or enhance existing habitat
    • Replace areas of mown grasses/turf with prairies, meadows and gardens
    • Adapt best practices for pollinators
    • Use interpretative signage to raise awareness
    • Create sheltered nesting and overwintering areas
    • Reduce pesticides and therefore impacts on pollinators

    Best land management practices embrace four major principles

    1. Conserve biodiversity.  A naturally diverse landscape discourages outbreaks of disease or insects. Such a landscape also attracts beneficial insects such as lacewings and lady beetles that prey on unwanted pests. Healthy soil supports plant health and resistance to disease.
    2. Restore native vegetation.  Consider using native vegetation in landscapes. When buying flowers, the more a plant is genetically manipulated, the less attractive it becomes to wildlife. The plant's natural evolutionary traits provide cues that entice pollinators to visit. For example, the native Echinacea purpurea has been cultivated into a floral frankenstein called "butterfly kisses". This cultivar's flower does not attract pollinators and the seedhead has virtually vanished.
    3. Promote nutrient recycling through composting and soil health.  Backyard and community composting is an ecologically sound way of disposing of yard wastes and is used to increase soil nutrients. Beetle banks, wood chips, dead wood and leaf piles or "untidy" areas contribute to soil health, and also provide nesting areas for pollinators and beneficial insects.
    4. Use integrated pest management (IPM) to control insects and diseases
    • When choosing plants, pick naturally resistant plants.
    • Inspect and monitor your plants' health on a regular basis, before problems are out of control.
    • Instead of routinely spraying for insects, spot treat problems with soft pesticides such as insecticidal soaps, oils, and biorational products such as spinosad.
    • Adopt biorational practices that use naturally occurring biological control agents, such as parasitoids and predatory insects.
    Integrated Pest Management
    Monitoring pheromone traps for Plum curculio pest.
    photo:  L. Schneider

    What is Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

    IPM is an approach to solving pest problems by applying knowledge about pests and plants to prevent plant damage early before it becomes a problem.

    IPM promotes multiple tactics to manage pests and suppress population size below thresholds that cause unacceptable levels of damage to plants or crops.  IPM means responding to pest problems with the most effective and least-risk and least-toxic option. IPM is a science-based, decision-making process that includes monitoring and long range planning. By correcting conditions that lead to pest problems and using approved pesticides only when necessary, IPM provides more effective control while reducing pesticide use. The conservation of beneficial insects, including bees, insect predators, parasitic wasps, and butterflies, is an essential part of IPM.   Read more here . . .

    plastic smother
    Solarization method removes vegetation in park.
    photo:  L. Schneider

    Safer weed controls

    • Timed mowing
    • Hand weed, weed wacking, spot treatments
    • Vegetation burn with plastic cover (solarization)
    • Vegetation smother with cover crop (rye, oats, buckwheat)
    • Biocontrols, beneficial insects, nematodes
    • Building soil health, composting, and mulching (wood, leaves, pine needles)
    • Vegetation control with animals (goats, sheep, cattle)
    • Least toxic pest control (insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, corn gluten, white vinegar burns, kaolin clay)

    Pollinator friendly habitat includes

    • Beetle banks (mulch piles):  Years ago, farmers used beetle banks as standard practice to attract beneficial insects for pest control. Farmers made beetle banks by tilling a row alongside their crop rows, leaving the soil disturbed, and then seeding it with tall grasses.  Today, beetle banks are more of a bump/pile rather than a bank. Nevertheless, these beneficial insect habitats serve the same purpose. Beetle bumps are comprised of a pile of wood chips or compost. This creates a protected environment for pollinators and beneficial insects to nest and over winter.
    • Food (forage): Bees forage for themselves and to supply their colony and/or nests.  Butterflies and solitary bees will drink nectar from any flower they can reach with their tongue (probiscus). Some pollinators are particular about their food flowers, whereas some are generalists and gather pollen from many different flower species.  Specialists rely on a single plant species. The lifecycles of specialist are closely tied to the host plant. It's important to provide a variety of plants as host or "nursery" plants and others to provide nectar and pollen from spring through fall.
    • Host plants:  Some butterflies are very particular about which host-plants to lay eggs on, such as Monarch caterpillars with milkweeds. Although a butterfly may carefully choose a host plant, her parental responsibility ends when she lays her eggs.  However a female bee needs to create a secure nest area and stock the nest with nectar and pollen for the larvae/young to eat. Some solitary bee offspring stay with the nest for about 11 months, passing through egg, larva, and pupa stages before emerging as an adult.  Some social bees like bumble bees nest as a colony in small cavities such as an old mouse nest. 
    • Housing (nest areas or bee houses): Native bees and butterflies share the same basic life cycle - egg, larva, pupa, and adult - and also the same basic habitat needs:  place to lay eggs, flowers on which to forage for nectar and pollen. Butterflies lay eggs on plants suitable for their caterpillars to eat, whereas bees create a nest in a secure location and stock it with food for their offspring.

      Nesting areas include:
    • mulch or compost piles
    • underneath tree bark or siding
    • dead or laying wood and wood piles
    • open soil for underground nests
    • brush or shrubs, prairie grasses
    • bee or butterfly house
    • abandoned mouse holes or bird nests

    Steps to pollinator habitat restoration

    • Select a sunny site that is open and well-ventilated with low unwanted weed densities.
    • Select plants that will prosper in the soil and growing conditions. Prairie meadows are low maintenance if you choose the correct seed and plant mix. Include a wide variety of plants and grasses to ensure year-round interest.
    • Site preparation includes removing all weed plants (site prep methods).
    • Remove weed plants using (organic site prep (smothering, solarization).
    • Plant a cover crop of buckwheat or oats to out compete weed plants (smother cropping).
    • Sod removal for turf lawns.
    • Choose the best planting time, either spring (spring thaw - June 15) or fall (Sept. 15 - soil freeze). Some plants remain dormant or need to overwinter, and come up the following spring.  Watering the first two months encourages higher seed germination and survival. Fall planted prairies do not require watering, the seed will germinate the next spring.  A nurse crop that germinates in fall such as annual rye is recommended for fall plantings.  Prairie seed can be: 1) no-till seeder such as a seed drill which minimizes soil disturbance and has less weeds, 2) broadcast seeder, or 3) hand broadcast.  Seed quality is important. Choose a quality supplier.
    • Native habitat and gardens require maintenance such as timed mowing, burning, weeding and watering when needed. The first year will require extra care, and especially the first several weeks to remove the unwanted weeds that emerge from the seed bed (hand pull or selectively weed wack). A native prairie generally takes 3 years to fully establish.

    Pollinator friendly habitat benefits

    • Other species of wildlife benefit too, such as birds that eat flower seed and caterpillars
    • Provide diverse and abundant pollinator food sources including blooms from spring through fall with nectar and pollen
    • Reduced pesticide use contributes to clean water and a healthy environment
    • Interpretative signage provides awareness
    • Visual appeal and relaxation
    • Increase property values
    • Supports biodiversity

    Pollinator habitat designs in open spaces

    Prairie for pollinators
    Pollinator Native Prairie Stillwater
    pollinator park flower garden planting
    oak savannah