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The Importance of Pollinator Habitat

by Petra Schmalbrock

Pollinator garden

Pollinator garden at Sawmill Wetlands

Why is pollinator habitat important? The obvious answer is to provide food and living space for pollinators, bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, and hoverflies. But why should we care about “bugs”?

First, pollinators are very important for ¾ of our food crops; most fruits and nuts, many vegetables and cocoa and coffee do not produce without pollination. This includes pollination by all pollinator insects, not only honeybees. A worldwide decline in insects has been observed. So, it is in our human self-interest to preserve healthy and diverse populations of all insects and especially pollinators.. We should not kill them with pesticides but create healthy living spaces for them.

But healthy pollinator habitats with very diverse communities of native perennial plants are so much more than food for bees and butterflies. They are complex connected systems, called ecosystems, where all pieces are connected and function together as a whole. For example, a bicycle would not function well without the cogwheels, even losing a few teeth of a cog is a problem.

A pollinator habitat is an energy food web. Plants and only plants can capture the energy of the sun to make food (sugars) from water and CO2, they are primary producers. Herbivores from insects, to birds, mammals, and people are primary consumers. Carnivorous predators are consumers further up the food chain. But it all starts with the plants.

Now you may say turf grass and ornamental flowers are plants. Yes of course! But healthy ecosystems are so much more complex with many specialized parts, just like a bicycle. Some bees, so called specialist bees, can eat only pollen from specific plants. Many butterfly and moth larvae, i.e., caterpillars, eat only specific host plants that may be toxic to others. Birds need caterpillars to feed their young. So healthy pollinator habitat needs to be diverse. And it all works best if plant and animal communities have co-evolved over millennia to be a well working system, functioning as a whole, using resources, including energy from the sun, water and soil resources most efficiently.

Turf grass lawn is not efficient! It needs water, fertilizer and herbicides and must be mowed using fossil fuel. And it does not feed pollinators. Conversely, plants that are native to Ohio and that have co-evolved with the local fauna are adapted to the local climate and soil and can form self-sustaining communities. Once established, no additional water or fertilizer is needed. Most native perennial plants have deep roots. They stabilize the soil, limit run-off thus improving water quality. They also sequester carbon from the atmosphere and their deep roots store carbon in the soil. When we think of pollinator habitat, we think most often of flower gardens, but many local trees such as maples and red buds provide food and shelter for pollinators also.

For all these reasons FLOW advocates and is actively engaged in the establishment and maintenance of pollinator gardens, as well as planting trees. One advantage of pollinator gardens is that they grow faster than trees; they can be grown in a few years whereas trees require decades to become a fully established ecosystem.

FLOW recently updated the map of the pollinator pathway in the Olentangy watershed. Visit and look at these pollinator gardens. Maybe you get inspired to convert the lawn in your yard to pollinator habitat.