Baby chipping sparrows nesting in my evergreen hollies. Fledglings need food every few minutes. So when birds nest in your yard, they consume a lot of nearby insects, providing organic pest control.
I watched one summer day as a male northern cardinal hopped from one tomato cage to the other, each time peeking into the tomato plants as if he were looking for something. This continued for a few minutes until he finally came out from under one of the plants with his prize – a big, fat, juicy hornworm.
Those familiar with growing tomatoes know the type of damage that these worms can cause if left to run free on your tomato plants. Once the cardinal knew where the food was, he returned throughout the summer, keeping my tomato plants pest-free.
When it comes to gardening, many think of wildlife as problematic, when, in most cases, just the opposite is true. As most gardeners can attest, there is a lot that goes into managing a garden. No matter the size, there’s always something to do – like soil prepping, weeding, watering, planting – you get the idea.
With all that we do to help improve our chances for success, we’re not the only ones in control. Believe it or not, there are other busy workers out and about giving us a helping hand, and their presence could determine the success or failure of our efforts – and no one does this better than our native wildlife, especially the birds and bees.
Attracting birds to our gardens provides a great natural benefit beyond just watching them in the backyard. Birds are willing assistants that help maintain a natural balance between plants and pests. Most birds eat a variety of insects, including caterpillars, aphids, mosquitoes and other critters that may not be welcome in the garden. Fortunately, they go to work for us at just the right time. In order to feed their young the protein they need, birds that eat seeds and berries in the fall and winter switch to a more protein-based diet consisting of insects and other bugs in the spring and summer. Fledglings are insatiable and need food every few minutes. So when birds nest in your yard, they consume a lot of nearby insects, providing organic pest control and helping to eliminating the need for chemical insecticides. In addition, finches, sparrows and towhees consume countless quantities of weed seeds, making them useful landscapers – helping control unwanted plants. Hummingbirds, orioles and other birds that sip nectar are efficient pollinators of garden flowers. This can give flowerbeds an added color boost from extra blooms, which will in turn attract even more pollinators. Get the point?
If you live in an open area, consider adding a birdhouse made for purple martins. Purple martins consume a lot of insects and are a joy to watch.
For a quick start, consider adding a basic birdfeeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds. A birdfeeder will attract a variety of birds to your backyard in no time. Pay special attention to native plants and trees that already grow in your area. Native species establish quickly and are more recognizable to birds and other wildlife. Consider adding a small water source at ground level to not only attract birds, but to invite toads as well. Toads are a great asset to the garden and, like birds, help keep the insect population under control.
A typical mason bee house attached to my garden shed. Mason bees are extremely effective pollinators.
Simple Mason BeeHouse Construction
• Obtain a 4-by-4-inch piece of wood (untreated) approximately 8 inches long. On one of the sides drill holes that are 3-1/4 inches deep with a 5/16th drill bit. Do not drill all the way through the block.
Over the years I have developed a greater appreciation for all the butterflies, wasps, bees, flies and other bugs that buzz around our gardens. Without them, many of the fruits and vegetables that we know and love could not reproduce. Did you know that a bumblebee hovering over a tomato flower can create a vibration that will improve pollination much more efficiently than we ever could do by shaking the plant ourselves? Nature is full of amazing pollinators.
We’ve heard and talked about the ongoing loss of the honeybee population. It is still a mystery as to why these bees are disappearing, but we are starting to tap into the use of other types of pollinators, such as our very own native bees. Native bees deserve more credit for producing the foods that we enjoy each day, and are actually more adapted to pollinate our native plants more efficiently than that of the European honeybees. One of these pollinators is the solitary bee, or mason bee (aka orchard bee).
Mason bees may not provide us with honey, but they are extremely effective pollinators, and in a one-on-one battle can outperform her honeybee cousin. Unlike social bees that live in colonies, mason bees nest alone in natural holes creating individual cells for their brood that are separated by mud dividers. They cannot drill their own holes but will often use holes created by carpenter bees or any other small hole or crevice found in nature. Mason bees build their nests in spring, when the redbuds bloom and the eggs and larva winter over and hatch the following spring. They are great pollinators to have in and around the garden. We can help attract mason bees to our own gardens by purchasing or making special housing for them to nest in. Consider adding one to your own garden.
These are just a few ways that we as gardeners can help and improve our situation for a healthier sustainable garden. Evaluate your own backyard and ask yourself what can be done to help keep a natural balance in your landscape. The benefits of plants and animals go far beyond what we could ever imagine. And believe me, I need all the help I can get!
A version of this article appeared in a March 2015 print version of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Alan Pulley.