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Bumblebee on coneflower

By Liz Clift

Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may already be starting to prepare, or even plant your garden beds. However, did you know that by preparing your bed (or cleaning up winter debris from your yard) too early you can disrupt native pollinator habitat?

Native pollinators may take shelter in brush piles, reeds, and leaf litter from last year’s garden—overwintering, hibernating, or laying their eggs there. They may even nest directly in the soil. If you turn these piles under, or throw them in a compost bin, you could be interrupting the pollinator’s life cycles (and their ability to readily pollinate your garden).

So, when should you prep your garden?

As a general rule of thumb, once temperatures are consistently above 50 to 60 degrees—which is the temperature range preferred by different native bees (honey bees will emerge at the low end of this temperature spectrum) —you can start prepping.

If you can, avoid tilling or turning over the soil as much as possible throughout the year. This is because many ground nesting bees spend much of their lives underground—potentially even at the base of the plant they pollinate.

Why does this matter?

Although the honey bee is the poster child of bee population declines, native bee species actually pollinate large numbers of our crops, as well as native plants, and their numbers are in decline as well. And they’re far from the only native pollinators that rely on debris and shelter in your yard to find areas to nest, forage, or even drink water.

We can support their populations not only by minimizing disturbance of their habitat in our gardens and yards, but also by making sure that we create pollinator friendly habitat that includes a variety of native species, nesting sites, and hydration sites—especially in areas where water is less abundant. Offering a mix of plants that flower at various times throughout the year is also a great thing to do. If you have leafy crops, like lettuce or kale, allowing some of the plants to bolt can also provide additional food sources for native pollinators.

And of course, we can also help support native pollinator populations by minimizing our use of -icides, which can impact not only pollinators, but other insects, fungi and plants that these pollinators rely on for food and shelter.

A butterfly drinking from prairie coneflower
Although we consider some pollinators, like bees and butterflies beneficial--and many of us want these in our gardens and restoration projects--we risk harming their populations when we use broad spectrum insecticides. Populations of 40% of insect species have declined.