|A pollinator garden in Portland, Ore. Such gardens offer environmental journalists an opportunity to report locally on beneficial plantings and important pollinators. Photo: Sara "Asher" Morris, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
TipSheet: Pollinator Gardens Yield Local Story Possibilities
By Joseph A. Davis
Spring has sprung (or will have, in a few days). For many in your news audience, that means it’s time for gardening.
And people who love plants love the creatures that pollinate them. So they will thank you (if ever our audiences do) for reporting about pollinator gardening.
Why it matters
When it comes to pollinators, it pays to think broadly.
It’s not just honeybees. There is a whole menagerie of other insects that pollinate. There are butterflies. There are beetles. There are moths. There are hummingbirds.
But commercial honeybees are the literal worker bees in the pollinator industry. Beekeepers truck their hives around to farm fields and rent them out. Farmers (and beekeepers) want them so much that they’re often stolen. Bees are essential, for example, to California's almond crop.
Bottom line (and you’ve likely heard it
before): Pollinators help produce
something like 75 percent of crops.
Bottom line (and you’ve likely heard it before): Pollinators help produce something like 75 percent of crops. In fact, the value of their services has been estimated between $24 billion and $235 billion per year, and that’s just in the United States.
While honeybees are key, remember there are some 4,000 wild bee species native to the U.S. alone.
Each has its own ecological niche, and many are rare and even endangered. There are even specialized blueberry bees. Many bees are solitary, not social — like bumblebees, which are great pollinators.
As we noted above, flies, butterflies, beetles, wasps and moths pollinate, too. As do bats and other small mammals. Hummingbirds, which some people rarely see, are very active pollinators.
For a lot of reasons (pure delight being one), people like to plant pollinator gardens. Some plants are especially attractive to pollinators. The plants are nice and the butterflies are a bonus.
There are really many ways to do a pollinator garden. Few lead to failure.
You may want to encourage your audience to examine their motives (as well as their yard).
They may be in it mainly for the butterflies; they may want to be ecological. They may want plants that are drought-tolerant, self-seeding and don’t need maintenance (you may remind them it would be shrewd to avoid insecticides).
First, you may do best by thinking (and pitching) this as a local or regional story.
One reason is that planting season varies by region. There are loads of maps, but the Agriculture Department’s hardiness zone maps are a standard.
Another reason is that ideal planting time varies according to plant.
Yet another reason for some: many gardeners strongly prefer native plants. So do many insects. These vary by region, too.
One most important variable when planning a story is to know what kind of pollinator you are most interested in reporting on.
Whether your interest is narrow or broad, you will probably get an opportunity to talk about many species in a given garden. But if you know from the get-go you really want to focus on monarch butterflies, go ahead and discuss why it pays to plant milkweed.
But your audience should also know that some plants attract many kinds of pollinators — giving them (your audience and the pollinator) a higher chance of success. Tip for your reporting: Anise hyssop and butterfly weed are pollinator favorites.
A lot has been written about pollinator gardens, so skillfully Googling the research will get you a long way. But here are more ideas.
- Nurseries and garden stores: Most towns or counties have these. Many have a wise old (or young) expert in back ready to answer questions. Many, as a way of promoting sales, have displays of seeds for pollinator gardens. Look over the seed packets for geographic appropriateness.
- Agricultural extension: The name of the particular office may vary in local lingo, but it’s often called the co-op extension service. There is a vast network of local offices that gives farming and gardening advice — typically under the auspices of the Agriculture Department and county government. Find your local offices here.
- Community gardens: Many urban and suburban locales have community gardens, where open space is subdivided into individual plots (sometimes with communal flowers and herbs). Visit yours on a sunny weekend and find the talkative people.
- Ag schools: Almost every state has one or more institutions of higher learning devoted to agriculture, if only because of the land-grant university system of yore. Look for their pollinator experts.
- Conservation groups: Some national conservation groups have special interests in preserving pollinator habitat, including the Xerces Society and the Pollinator Partnership (which offers eco-regional planting guides). But you might also look for more localized groups — such as chapters of the Audubon Society.
[Editor’s Note: For more, check out this TipSheet on urban farming, and learn about honeybees in this FEJ StoryLog and in this review of “The Beekeeper’s Lament.” Plus, get the latest headlines on pollinators from EJToday.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 11. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.