Pollinator Week kicks off on June 19th, so I welcomed Kelly Bills, the executive director of Pollinator Partnership, to the podcast to talk about all the great work the organization does and how gardeners can get involved during Pollinator Week and year-round.
Kelly has been with Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, for 10 years and has been the executive director for the last two. The organization has staff and partners throughout North America working toward the mission of protecting pollinators. That means managed bees, like honeybees, and wild bees, like bumblebees, and various other pollinating insects as well as pollinating birds, like hummingbirds, mammals, like bats, and even reptiles. “The world of pollinators is really diverse and beautiful,” Kelly says.
Kelly came to Pollinator Partnership after seeing an internship ad on Craigslist. She had a background in environmental science, with an undergraduate degree from U.C. Santa Cruz and a Master of Science from the University of San Francisco. “It’s been a really amazing journey and the amount of diverse people and partnerships and landscapes you get to work on was really surprising to me,” she says.
Kelly grew up on 24 acres in upstate New York, which she says cemented her love of just being outside and exploring nature. “I refused to wear shoes when I was little outside — things like that,” she says. “So I was always very curious and happy to be outside in nature.”
What Pollinator Partnership Does
Pollinator Partnership’s mission is to raise awareness of pollinators, the threats to pollinators and what we as gardeners can do to help pollinators.
Sometimes people think, “I’m just one person. What can I really do?” But there are things that we can do individually — and all of our efforts add up. I like the old saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step because I know our collective efforts will lead to success if each of us takes that first step.
Pollinator Partnership provides resources, educational tools and programs to enable anyone to participate in pollinator conservation.
This is the 17th year that the Pollinator Partnership is presenting Pollinator Week, which was modeled after the U.S. Forest Service’s awareness week for wildflowers in May.
“We actually got a resolution from the Senate to proclaim National Pollinator Week, which is the third week of June every year,” Kelly notes.
This year, it starts on June 19 and continues through June 25.
“The idea is really to put resources and ideas in local communities and just local citizens’ hands so that they can celebrate wherever they are,” she says. “And it really started out as a national week, but now it’s really gone international, almost global at this point. We have people celebrating all over the world, which is great.”
The Pollinator Partnership website, pollinator.org, includes a Pollinator Week map to find local events to celebrate Pollinator Week or to list an event for others to find, such as beekeeping classes, nature walks, plant ID courses, film screenings and native plant sales.
“There are a lot of great things going on during that time, and it’s just a time to really recognize the bounty that pollinators provide for us, not just in food, but also in planetary health as well,” Kelly says.
Pollinator Partnership will co-host with the Electric Power Research Institute the world’s largest virtual event for pollinators, the Pollinator Power Party. Now in its third year, held during Pollinator Week, the Pollinator Power Party offers a series of fun Zoom events and presentations — things like cooking classes, origami lessons and music concerts.
The Pollinator Power Party will include, on Monday, June 19, 2023, Dr. David Inouye, a professor emeritus of the University of Maryland Department of Biology, giving a presentation on the status of pollinators. He was one of the authors of “Status of Pollinators in North America,” published by the National Academy of Science in 2007, which started the pollinator conversation discussion.
Then on Wednesday, June 21, Pollinator Partnership will talk about land management and hear from the partnership’s bee-friendly gardening coordinator. And on Friday, June 23, a presentation will be on the research concerning whether bees can feel and if they play.
“It’s a really great time to tune in and learn some new stuff,” Kelly says.
Kelly, herself, will be in Washington, D.C., during Pollinator Week for a number of events, such as the USDA farmers market’s Pollinator Festival.
Monarch Wings Across America.
Pollinator.org offers a number of webinars about monarch butterflies and how gardeners can create habitats for them — and Kelly points out that monarch butterfly habitat is good habitat for all pollinators.
Pollinator Partnership’s Monarch Wings Across America initiative is an overarching monarch butterfly conservation program that has included talks from Department of Transportation vegetation managers discussing managing roadsides and talks on prescribed burns and different seeding methods.
These webinars and more can be found on Pollinator Partnership’s YouTube channel.
Ecoregional Planting Guides
With its Ecoregional Planting Guide series, Pollinator Partnership takes the mystery out of what you should plant to best benefit pollinators. Each guide is tailored to a different ecoregion, or vegetation community, of North America with charts featuring the best native plants to serve pollinators. Just go to pollinator.org/guides and type in your ZIP code or Canadian postal code to find the right guide for where you live — for free.
“This is one of our most-loved resources,” Kelly says. “I love it. I use it all the time.”
These guides are incredibly helpful. Much of the information we receive about the benefits of native plants is broad, but these guides are tailored so gardeners know they are choosing the right plants for where they live. I also appreciate that the information is coming from a trusted source, which can be hard to come by on the internet.
“You want success for your garden or for your habitat planting, and this is a good way to get on that path — is to pick things that are appropriate for your region because they will grow well,” Kelly says. “So we have information about your ecoregion and then we have a really great plant list. I think most of these guides have 50-plus species of different native plants that you can use to support pollinators.”
The guide also identifies which animals you can expect to attract with certain plants, such as enticing hummingbirds with red flowers.
Pollinator Partnership is working this summer with the U.S. Forest Service to turn these guides into a searchable online database. When it’s done, you’ll be able to type in your property’s ZIP code, sun exposure and soil type and find the best plants not only for your ecoregion but specifically for your piece of land. You can then print that list out to bring to your local nursery.
Climate Change and the Threat to Pollinators
Each year the Pollinator Partnership engages an artist to make a poster on a pollinator topic, and the 2023 poster is titled “Climate Change is in Our Hands: Little Things Matter.”
The title is a nod to naturalist E.O. Wilson’s groundbreaking scientific paper “The Little Things That Run the World (The Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates).”
And the poster has a second meaning as well: The little things that we do matter.
“There are little things that we can do to support pollinators on a daily basis that can be really, really simple,” Kelly says.
She points out that there is a direct link between climate change and pollinators, so when we make choices to conserve energy and reduce our carbon footprint, we are helping pollinators. It could mean riding your bike to work instead of driving or buying local food.
“Pollinators are indicator species, meaning that they’re one of the first ones to be negatively impacted by something,” Keppy points out. “So if they’re doing bad, it’s kind of cause for alarm for us to say, ‘Uh oh, we might have a problem here.’”
The greater frequency of extreme weather events due to climate change affects the habitat of pollinators and the ability of migratory species to fly and survive. Drought caused by climate change is troublesome for pollinators as well because the plants the pollinators rely on can’t thrive. And then there are the wildfires that have been all too common in the West.
When we choose to add more plants to our gardens, particularly native plants, we can improve nutrient cycling, erosion control, water filtration and carbon sequestration to mitigate the causes and effects of climate change, Kelly explains. Pollinators themselves, which aid in the reproduction of about 85% of all flowering plants on the planet, support us and overall planetary health.
One of the biggest reasons why climate change is a threat to pollinators relates to phenology — the life cycles of plants and animals and how they complement each other.
Plants bloom at a certain time, and native pollinators have a certain foraging time, Kelly explains.
If a plant blooms early or late due to changes in climate while a pollinating insect still emerges at its typical time of year, the two interdependent species miss their window of opportunity. And the same thing can happen if insects emerge earlier than normal due to a warmer climate but the flowers they are attracted to haven’t bloomed yet.
“Let’s take a bumblebee for example,” Kelly says. “Their queen will emerge in the spring, and they need to have the particular plants that they need blooming at that same time. So what’s happening with climate change and increased temperature and droughts and things like that, the timing of the bloom of the plant and the emergence of the bee is mismatched. So they don’t have the food they need or the host plant in some cases that they need to survive and reproduce.”
Pollinating species have also changed their range due to climate change, or their range is shrinking — in some cases, to the point of disappearing.
Pollinators and HOAs
When gardeners want to transform their yards to help pollinators, they may be limited in what they are allowed to change because they live under the authority of a homeowners association. As native gardener Janet Crouch shared with me on a recent podcast, sometimes HOAs even overreach their authority in telling wildlife-minded gardeners what they can and cannot do. In Janet’s case, she won a victory with a new state law in Maryland that protects native gardens, but few states have such a law.
Pollinator Partnership frequently gets questions from gardeners confronting HOA issues. Kelly says it’s common for Pollinator Partnership to hear: “My neighbor reported me to the HOA because I have native plants growing in my front yard, and they think they’re weeds and they think I’m just being messy.”
But native plants aren’t “messy” — they’re providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife,” Kelly says.
There are a number of programs that combat the mindset that native plants are weeds and encourage property owners to do more for wildlife.
“MeadowMakers,” an initiative run by Pollinator Partnership Canada, promotes removing lawn and converting it to meadows. “It doesn’t have to be every single bit of your lawn,” Kelly says. “You can still keep your patches or whatever works for you and your family.”
Lawn can be nice for pathways and activities, but lawn that is only ever stepped on when it it mowed really doesn’t need to be there and could be turned into useful habitat.
Lawns don’t provide much of anything to wildlife in terms of habitat and ecosystem services, Kelly says. “There are these lawn mixes that can include clover and things like that, but even then, it’s not really rich pollen and nectar that we’re getting out of those mixes. A more robust pollinator mix would be better.”
The Pollinator Partnership is working on a toolkit for homeowners and HOAs concerning how to incorporate these topics into their bylaws. This includes suggesting better mowing regimes and how to start the conversation on why homeowners would want to include this wildlife habitat in their yards.
The partnership similarly provides information to towns and cities. It has a program called Bee City Canada, and there is another program run by the Xerces Society called Bee City USA. “Those programs also provide resources for municipalities down to the homeowner level of how to work with your neighbors and community to show that you’re doing something good and they should actually get on board with it,” Kelly says.
Getting Others to Care
Sharing science-based information on the importance of pollinators and native plants is the easy part of the challenge that the Pollinator Partnership and like-minded organizations face. The real difficulty is in getting people to care. It’s hard to get people to see the light, but with every crack we make in the concrete, more light shines through. So it’s hugely important that everybody does everything they can as gardeners and homeowners.
In the contiguous United States, turf grass takes up 2 percent of the land, and turf grass is the most irrigated crop in the United States. So if we all converted just half of our turf to native plantings, it would make a monumental difference for pollinators.
“There is so much underutilized land in this country and throughout the world for that matter, when you look at turf lawns, when you look at roadsides, when you look at rights-of-way, utility rights-of-way, things like that,” Kelly says.
There are millions of acres that have been one way for such a long time that don’t need to stay that way, she points out. “We can improve all of these landscapes for the betterment of everyone and pollinators,” she says.
“One of the main pillars of what we do in pollinator protection for both our bee-friendly gardening program and our bee-friendly farming program is the use of Integrated Pest Management,” Kelly says.
IPM is based on principles of only intervening when necessary to control a pest problem — and to do as little as possible. If pesticides are needed as a last resort, use pollinator-friendly products and only according to the instructions on the label.
“We work with a lot of conventional farmers that are feeding the world and sometimes it is necessary, and we understand that, but yes, we want it to be only used as a last resort,” Kelly says.
Sarasota Green Group, the company behind the Earth’s Ally line of bee-safe pesticides for organic gardening, is one of the corporate partners of Pollinator Partnership. (Earth’s Ally is also a sponsor of “The joegardener Show” podcast.) No matter the brand, look for “bee-safe” certifications when choosing products meant to deter or kill pests. These products are backed by scientific testing.
Not every product that is natural or organic is safe for bees and other pollinators. Snake venom is organic and all-natural, but that doesn’t make it safe and healthy.
When using pesticides, whether they be organic or chemical, follow the directions and use them sparingly. Apply at the beginning or the end of the day, when pollinators are less active, and never use more than recommended.
Toyota Pollinator Friendly Places
Toyota Motors North America and Pollinator Partnership are offering gardeners seeds and plugs of plants that are native to their area.
Toyota Motors North America has land holdings of 26,000 acres between all of its manufacturing facilities and other properties. The company decided, through its environmental sustainability goals, to match the amount of acreage with pollinator habitat across North America. To that end, the company has made it possible for Pollinator Partnership to offer free seeds and plant material to individuals and organizations.
“It’s all free. It is regionally specific for you,” Kelly says, “and it’s a great way for us to get more people involved in our network, and we’re hoping that the people that receive plant material from us will stay in touch with us to share stories and photos.”
Participants may also want to get involved in the partnership’s community science efforts on iNaturalist.
“Seed is obviously the easier thing to give out to people since it’s a little bit more cost-effective and also easier to ship,” Kelly notes. “But now actually we’re seeing that a lot of native plant species don’t grow as well from seed as they do from being propagated into plug plants, for example. So we’re this year, hopefully, going to take a little bit of a shift to giving out some more plug plants and doing some more plant kits so they still can be shipped.”
Bee Friendly Gardening Program
Pollinator Partnership’s Bee Friendly Gardening is a membership program for gardeners, landscapes, campuses, houses of worship and more who meet certain criteria, such as planting nectar- and pollen-providing plants and providing nesting sites via permanent plantings. The cost of membership is $20 annually, which includes exclusive resources and the opportunity to get a Bee Friendly Gardening sign — an important asset to educate others on why native gardens are vital habitats for wildlife.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Kelly Bills on Pollinator Week and Pollinator Partnership, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you choose plants to benefit pollinators? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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Pollinator Partnership on Instagram: @pollinatorpartnership
“Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide” by Heather Holm
Pollinator Festival by the USDA Farmers Market in Washington, D.C.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.