Insectary plants draw native pollinators
By KELSEY THALHOFER
On a cool morning, Peter Kenagy of Kenagy Family Farms watches bumble bees dart in and out of a thick row of Douglas Spirea that divides his fields.
The plant's tall, pink flowers provide nectar to support the native pollinators.
The bees, Kenagy said, provide an intangible benefit on his 450-acre Albany, Ore., farm. They work in lower temperatures than traditional honey bees do, allowing a longer pollination season for crops such as radishes.
Kenagy planted his hedgerows as an experiment 15 years ago and said the low-maintenance plants now cover an acre of his farm. They also serve a dual purpose by discouraging geese -- which prefer large, unobstructed fields -- from landing on his property.
For many farmers like Kenagy, attracting native bees to wildflower meadows and hedgerows yields bigger crops. They've also found that coaxing predatory insects and parasites into these habitats significantly reduces their need for pesticides.
As honey bee populations continue to struggle and consumers push for fewer pesticides in food production, farmers are discovering the benefits of using insectary plants, which attract bugs, to protect and propel their crops.
The plants benefit the farmer and the ecosystem, Mace Vaughan, director of the Xerces Society Pollinator Program, said.
"Focusing on pollinator conservation is a real win-win for organic farmers" as well as conventional farmers, Vaughan said. "It's something that farmers are increasingly utilizing."
Vaughan's program assists the Xerces Society's overall mission of protecting wildlife by conserving invertebrates and their habitat. Though farmers may not see results from these habitats for the first one or two growing seasons, Vaughan said this long-term investment can save farmers money and add biodiversity to their growing environment.
For organic farmers, the benefit is twofold, as one of the requirements of organic certification is maintaining or improving the biodiversity of their land.
"They kind of assess having this habitat as having money in the bank," Gwendolyn Ellen, a senior faculty research assistant at Oregon State University, said of farmers. As part of Oregon State University's Integrated Plant Protection Program, Ellen leads a program called "Farmscaping for Beneficials," which focuses on conserving pollinators and other beneficial invertebrates.
She said winter is the best time for farmers to begin planning the habitats, and fall is the best time to plant. Beneficial bugs don't respond well to disrupted land or pesticides, and certain invertebrates are attracted to different types and colors of flowers, Ellen said, so planting a successful habitat means thinking ahead.
Ellen said farmers typically saw best results when they placed plants as close as possible to the crops they wanted pollinated or protected.
An orchardist in The Dalles, Ore. tried a different approach.
Mike Omeg, owner of Omeg Orchards, planted woody shrubs in road banks and free spaces on his 400-acre sweet cherry orchard, and calls the plants "insurance," during poor pollination weather.
"The increase in pollination services provided by the native insects, that's difficult to quantify," Omeg said. Although he still spends $30,000 on pollination services from honey bees, he called native pollinators a "supplement" and said he saw more of them on his farm within a few years of adding insectary plants in 2006.
He said he immediately noticed a reduction in black cherry aphid -- he now sprays less for the pest -- but said some other pests still plague his property.
Omeg recommended planting aggressive, long-blooming, native plants, such as mints, service berry, snow berry, red osier dogwood, rugosa rose and Siberian peashrub.
After the first two years, Omeg said, the plants grew tall enough to survive against weeds. He suggested that farmers experiment with the plants on a small test area near their home or office, where they can observe which plants grow best, when they bloom and how much water they need.
He also recommended consulting a native-plant nursery to find out which plants are best for attracting pollinators.
Omeg said he received financial assistance for the work from several agriculture groups and the National Resources Conservation Service, the state and his local soil and water conservation district.
Though the investment is long-term and successes are difficult to measure, Omeg said insectary plants have been "worth it" for his farm and encouraged other farmers to see what attracting beneficial bugs can do for them.
"It does provide payback," Omeg said.