A bee pollinates purple echinacea flowers in a pollinator garden near a research station in Salisbury, N.C.

A bee pollinates purple echinacea flowers in a pollinator garden near a research station in Salisbury, N.C.

Whether farming hundreds of acres or gardening in the backyard, pollinators are a critical component to agriculture’s success ensuring proper development, more fruit and viable seed. In North Carolina, honeybees alone pollinate more than $200 million worth of crops. However, considering that pollinators include not only 4,000 species of bees but also pollen wasps, ants, flower beetles, butterflies, moths and a variety of flies, the value is priceless.

Determined to better attract and protect all pollinators statewide, North Carolina’s agriculture community is pursuing several initiatives that are already making a significant impact.

Fieldwatch: Spreading the Buzz

In April 2016, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) joined the efforts of 13 other states by participating in FieldWatch, an online mapping program created by Purdue University. In just a short amount of time, this voluntary service has tremendously improved communication between beekeepers, farmers and pesticide sprayers, helping prevent bee deaths and crop damage due to accidental pesticide drift, confirms Patrick Jones, NCDA&CS deputy director of pesticide programs.

“With growers covering so many different counties, it’s hard to know what bees are in the area,” Jones says. But once registered, FieldWatch sends email notifications when a new apiary opens.

The applicators know to time sprays late in the afternoon when bees are less active. “Farmers want beekeepers to know how much they appreciate the bees being there.”

Additional protection measures include following integrated pest management practices recommended by NCDA&CS. For example, Sevin dust is one of the worst products for bees, but it becomes safer when changed from dust to liquid form.

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“Educating the consumer is a top priority,” Jones stresses. Current outreach efforts include county bee days, pollinator and garden events, and demonstrations at county fairs throughout the state. “With FieldWatch and our pollinator protection programs, we are making a big impact across North Carolina.”

Designing a Pollinator Paradise

Located in the Chatham Mills complex in Pittsboro is the “Pollinator Paradise” Demonstration Garden, attracting not only native pollinators, but hundreds of visitors annually.

“I created the garden in 2008 as a demonstration garden to teach visitors about creating habitats for pollinators. Since then, it has more than doubled in size and now includes over 180 perennial species, 85 percent of which are native to North Carolina,” says Debbie Roos, who gives regular tours of the garden as an agent for the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

“I want visitors to see that you can have a beautiful, drought-tolerant, pesticide-free landscape that helps sustain pollinators, which are so vital to our local food system.”

For homeowners looking to attract and protect pollinators, Roos recommends planting diverse perennials to provide a long bloom season from early spring through late fall with a minimum of three to five different species for each season. It’s also critical to avoid applying pesticides to blooming plants and pesticides toxic to bees.

“North Carolina has over 500 species of native bees, and about 75 percent of them are solitary species that nest in the ground. Identify and protect these sites from disturbance,” Roos says.

NCDA&CS also recommends planting mustard and turnips in the fall for pollinators. When the crops bloom in early spring, they are a great resource for bees when not much else is available. During the growing season, additional options include sunflowers, yellow sweet clover, crimson clover and wildflower gardens. Buckwheat is also a good choice for the dry months.

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Looking to the future, North Carolina’s agricultural research stations are already planting plots to perform pollinator population tests, determining what forages are most attractive to pollinators in North Carolina – efforts that will help keep the state a pollinator “paradise” for years to come.