River-Friendly Landscaping Part 4: Creating Wildlife Habitat

Lions and tigers and bears – oh my!

Although this may be what comes to mind when thinking of creating wildlife habitat, for obvious reasons we don’t want to attract big wildlife like black bears and mountain lions into our yards. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make room for some smaller wildlife, like beneficial insects. There’s plenty of room in your yard to share with these little guys.

And, did you know that it’s National Pollinator Week? So for this, the fourth in our River-Friendly Landscaping Series, we’re talking pollinators!

Why are pollinators important?

Well, firstly because pollinators help feed us! Many of the foods you eat every day are made possible because of the hard work of pollinators  – avocados, blueberries, tomatoes, chocolate, and bananas, just to name a few. Even dairy products like cheese and milk need pollinators because dairy cows eat alfalfa hay (a major crop in Nevada), which bees pollinate.

And because insects pollinate plants, they also play an important role in ecosystem health. Just think how many plants in the world need pollination, and not just the ones we eat. About 90% of flowering plants on Earth need pollinators to reproduce. Without pollinators, the world would be a very different place!

So why do bugs need our help?

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about beneficial insects and pollinators in the news lately. This is because their numbers are in steep decline. From monarch butterflies to honey bees, scientists have been documenting this decline, and it can also be seen within the larger trend of accelerating extinction rates of species across the globe. And since we’ve already talked about the importance of pollinators, you can see how this is a big deal!!

Monarch butterfly populations as documented from 1997-2018

Then how do we help them?

One really important thing you can do to protect pollinators is to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This is a system of managing pests that only uses chemicals (i.e. pesticides) as a last resort. This is especially important for protecting pollinators because many pesticides are broad spectrum – they kill indiscriminately (i.e. they may get rid of the undesired insects but will be just as harmful to beneficial insects).

You can help by simply using less pesticides. And if you are going to use them, you are required by law to follow the instructions! If you have questions, which you probably will because pesticide labels are often complicated, you should reach out to IPM staff at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

IPM Pyramid

The next thing you can do is create a pollinator garden, because the biggest threat to pollinators (and all species in decline) is habitat loss. So one of the key things we can do is to create more habitat – starting in our own yards. Why not pull out a small section of lawn and replace it with a pollinator garden?

How to create a pollinator garden?

Creating habitat is all about providing water, food, and shelter.

Step 1: Food

  • Use a wide variety of plants that bloom throughout the growing season with varying sizes and shapes (think buffet line, but for bees and butterflies!)
This flower bed at River School Farm in Reno has a wide variety of plants with different shapes, sizes, and bloom times.
  • Native plants often provide the best food sources for our native bees and butterflies.
A bumble bee gathers nectar and pollen from a Penstemon sp. in a native plant garden at the UNR Fleischmann Agriculture building.
  • Avoid hybrids or cultivars. Often, plant breeders have done a great job of making flowers look beautiful to our eye, but that doesn’t mean that they have what beneficial insects need.
Hybrid roses have beautiful pedals, but they are so thick that it’s difficult for pollinators to get in to access the pollen and nectar. In contrast, the native wild rose (Rosa woodsii) allows for very easy access to pollen and nectar.
  • Give a little to the cause! You have to be ok with letting your plants get eaten. Although many adult insects need food, it’s often even more important to provide food for the larva (this is often their longest life stage and when they’re doing the most growing). For example, monarch caterpillars feed on milkweeds.
Monarch caterpillar eating a milkweed leaf. Jim Hudgins/USFWS
  • Remove or reduce lawn areas (they are monocultures that support very few species). If you aren’t quite ready to reduce or remove your lawn, consider allowing for some clover, yarrow, or the occasional dandelion to add in some biodiversity.
Yarrow growing on the edge of a lawn.

Step 2: Water

Bees drinking water off a wet rock.

Step 3: Shelter

  • Install different layers of plants and plant in masses or clumps. This provides more structural diversity, making more niches where different pollinators can seek shelter.
Complex plantings give insects lots of places to call home.
  • Leave some bare soil. Did you know approximately 70% of bees nest in the ground instead of in hives? It helps if they have some bare soil to burrow into.
Sand Wasp digging a burrow at Bodega Bay, California. In the genus Bembix, these wasps eat flies and other insects. (Photo credit: Ingrid Taylar)

That’s it! Three easy steps to remember when designing a pollinator garden.

Now get out there and make some wildlife habitat for our small pollinator friends. Even if it’s just a small corner of your yard or a few pots on the patio, it can make a big difference to incorporate some biodiversity into your yard. It also helps keep our watershed healthy by protecting the unique plants and animals that make the Truckee River watershed so beautiful!

If you need some more motivation, you can also take a tour of a pollinator garden this week at Patagonia Service Center on White Fir Street with River School Farms.

If you don’t have garden space but still want to help pollinators, contact Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful and ask about how you can help maintain their native plant garden in Idlewild Park.