In June the King Conservation District and Horses for Clean Water sponsored several Xerces Society events held in various King County, Washington locations. In case you’ve not heard of Xerces Society, I would like to introduce you to them and their mission. Xerces Society is a science-based, international organization headquartered in Portland, Oregon who’s mission is to protect and preserve native insects and other macro-invertebrates.
Native bees, butterflies, and other insects provide an essential service for the environment. According to Xerces Society, native pollinators support reproduction for over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, and more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species; they are fundamental for both agriculture and natural ecosystems on earth.
Sadly, on our planet we are losing insects at an alarming rate, mirroring our decline in animal species. In recent years we’ve witnessed a 90% decrease of Monarch butterflies - many species of bumblebee are also in decline. The fuzzy, black and yellow Western Bumblebee, once one of the most common sights in our gardens and a harbinger of summer, is on the brink of extinction and can no longer be found in places like the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
As far as the latest on honeybee decline, Washington State University has informative news and information on their website.
At the Xerces workshops, I noted two big things that we horse owners can do to help out with the world-wide pollinator decline:
Decrease General Insecticide Use and Don’t use Neonicotinoids
This includes spraying for mosquitoes. Insecticides don’t just harm pest insects, they impact beneficials as well. Spraying at night can help minimize impacts to pollinator insects that visit flowers, however, this approach doesn’t decrease exposure for ground beetles and other beneficial insects. Less-toxic methods of pest control are healthier options for protecting pollinators, such as:
- Hand-remove pests
- Use soap-based insecticidal sprays
- Use species specific traps and lures
- Select plants that are more pest and disease-resistant, such as native plants
When using fly spray on horses, do so inside a barn and away from flowering plants or foliage where beneficial insects may eat or live. Or, try making natural fly sprays with organic, beneficial oils. Alternately use fly masks, fly sheets and fans to circulate air inside the barn and help keep flying pests at bay. Check out more tips on fly control in the article below.
Plant flowering plants in your yard, garden, along pasture edges or in corners or other areas that are not being used for horse activities. This is the easy and fun part! Strive to have something flowering early spring through late fall to give pollinators food all year long. Native plants are perfect for this job, but there are plenty of other naturalized garden plants which are good for insects too, including: easy-to-grow purple coneflower (echinacea), black-eyed Susan (named the official drink of the Preakness), cosmos, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and garden veggies. When deciding what to plant keep in mind that flowering plants which don’t produce pollen, like dahlias and hybrid roses, aren’t helpful to native insects.
Bees also need places to nest. Native bees are solitary and don’t build the waxy or paper structures we associate with honey bees or wasps. Most nest in small tunnels or cells they construct underground, or nests left behind by other insects. This means that leaving some bare ground un-mulched can be a huge resource for beneficial insects on your property. Some prefer the hollow-stems of cane plants like berries. Others prefer deserted rodent burrows or sandy soils. And of course you can make or purchase nesting boxes for many different species of pollinators.
Our easy take-home message is this: Plant more native plants. Reduce pesticide use. Protect and enhance insect habitat and nest sites.