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Entomologist, author shares tips on how to make Clark County welcoming to vital pollinators

You don't need a lot of property to help bees, birds, more

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 15, 2023, 6:06am
5 Photos
A hummingbird hangs around flowers at Clark Public Utilities' pollinator garden at its Orchards Operations Center.
A hummingbird hangs around flowers at Clark Public Utilities' pollinator garden at its Orchards Operations Center. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Habitat degradation is taking a toll on bees and other pollinators that serve a crucial role in our ecosystem. But you can create a haven in your yard to help them out.

Pollinators are important because they move pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part. Basically, they make plant sex happen so new plants will grow.

Experts say there are as many as 500 different bee species living in the Pacific Northwest, such as bumble, sweat, mason and leafcutter bees. But bees aren’t the only kind of pollinator. Hummingbirds, beetles and flies also play an integral role in plant reproduction.

Entomologist Doug Tallamy, the best-selling author and University of Delaware professor who spoke at Clark Public Utilities’ Pollinator Festival in late June, said the future of conservation is understanding that humans coexist within nature and don’t live outside of it.

“Everybody has a responsibility in keeping ecosystems functioning — we own a piece of Earth,” he said in an interview.

Transforming your yard

A chunk of conservation work nationwide takes place in parks and reserves, yet the same effort on private property is lacking — and it’s the most critical, Tallamy said. Out of Washington’s 45.6 million acres, about 57 percent is privately owned, according to the Washington Public Lands Inventory.

Tallamy first became interested in the conservation value of native plants when he moved to Oxford, Pa. His property was covered with invasive plants but not many insects.

It was a sign that energy wasn’t moving through nature’s food web. Pollinators weren’t using the plants, which meant cross-pollination wasn’t occurring, and birds were missing a key food source — bugs.

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“We depend on the life support that healthy ecosystems provide,” Tallamy said. “We need that life support everywhere, not just in a few national parks.”

That means in your yard too. Here’s what to do:

Offer a buffet of native plants. Pollinators need food year-round. Property owners can help by planting native vegetation that has adapted to the region, such as Oregon grape and Canada goldenrod. As an included perk, these plants require less work to keep alive and are equipped to handle the Pacific Northwest’s climate cycles. Whether you decide to establish dozens of crops on an acre or arrange potted plants on a balcony, the slightest addition of native plants to urban ecosystems is helpful, he said.

The Xerces Society, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on invertebrate conservation, provides a comprehensive list of valuable regional plants on its website.

Ditch the chemicals. Eliminate pesticide use and ask garden centers whether they use treatments on their plants.

Turn off the lights. Bright light after dusk disorients insects and birds. Minimize light pollution by turning off bright bulbs in the evening.

Leave a mess. Patches of leaf litter or hollow reeds provide cozy shelter for native bees. Most are solitary creatures and avoid hives populated with colonies.

Indispensable beings

Environmental conservationists commonly call insects “the little things that run the world,” a sentiment popularized by biologist Edward O. Wilson, who died in 2021.

Invertebrates pollinate 80 percent to 90 percent of the world’s plants and are the basis of nature’s food web. Roughly 1-of-3 bites of food humans eat depend on insect-pollinated plants, directly or indirectly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Insects also feed other animals, contributing at least 400 million metric tons to birds’ diets a year.

In the Western United States, about 35 percent of the region’s 3,000 species of bees are pollen specialists. They co-evolved and developed certain associations with the landscape. For example, the hairs on specialist bees’ bodies are designed to pick up pollen from certain plants, a tool that evolved through millions of years to ensure that cross-pollination occurs, Tallamy said.

Not every bug buzzing around a flower is aiding in its reproduction, however. Some insects solely visit for sweet, nutrient-dense nectar, such as butterflies, who are not efficient pollinators, Tallamy said. Even adored European honeybees present a challenge to native pollinators, as they’re non-native and present robust competition for resources.

The community has a host of local utilities, institutions, farms and volunteers seeking to restore the urban ecosystem by attracting native pollinators, including the Vancouver Bee Project. Property owners can visit Clark Public Utilities’ pollinator projects at its Orchards and downtown Vancouver buildings to gain insight and inspiration for creating habitat to boost the dwindling pollinator population.

“My message is, simply, you can do something about it,” Tallamy said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer