Creating a Pollinator Garden on my Tiny Apartment Balcony
Ask not what pollinators can do for you; ask what you can do for the pollinators
Every so often, I get obsessed with a new topic. As a naturally curious person who gets all too easily distracted by the internet, I was surprised to receive the following email in late February this year.
“Thank you for enrolling in our course about wild bees! We will get started in 3 days.”
“Wild bees?” I mumbled while scratching my head. Until I remembered I enrolled in a course organized by a local conservationist group a couple of months prior. My interest had spiked after starting — and not finishing — an online course on the basics of entomology. Since then, I got sidetracked by a non-specific array of topics in which bees were not included (although sled dogs and mollusks definitely were).
The start of the wild bee course happened just after a rather influential change in scenery. After trying to convince everybody for years that moving in with a partner is like giving up on all your hopes and dreams, my girlfriend had managed to convince me without much of an effort to do exactly that. So here I am, hopes and dreams intact, writing a Medium article about the mini pollinator garden on our stamp-sized balcony.
By my estimations, Brussels has about 5 billion balconies which makes for a summery, art nouveau-esque charm. Many of them (ours included) are too small to actually put a chair on, but you do get the opportunity to open up two full-sized doors rather than windows — all this is to say that it feels like a balcony.
The bee course’s charming and presumably bee whispering host, Joeri Cortens, didn’t take long to bust open the doors to a world that I had never witnessed before. Like most people, I wasn’t aware that honeybees are actually fully domesticated animals, meaning that they do not live in the wild anymore. “Wild bees” refers to all but the honeybees, most of whom — and this is a big one — are solitary.
From more than 300 species of bees that fly around Belgium and the Netherlands, only a handful (including some species of bumblebees) are social animals that live together in hives. Sadly, almost half of these solitary bee species are at risk of extinction, while many others are struggling to find their place in an environment colonized by humans.
Why pollinators deserve a break
My obsession with bees is going strong, demonstrated by the fact that I have been asked to tone it down on the bee facts. Did you know there are so-called cuckoo bumblebees (named after the bird who lays their eggs in other birds’ nests) who break into a bumblebee nest, kill the queen, take her throne, and let their own children (of a different species!) be reared by the masses of fooled worker bees?
It occurs to me that everything cool about Pokémon has a more dramatic and otherworldly equivalent in nature. I hope the irony of finding made-up creatures using augmented reality (Pokémon Go) in a world filled to the brim with largely ignored, but real, animals is not lost here. So the bees are struggling. But why?
This is the part where I say it’s complicated — and it is — but part of the solution is so ridiculously simple that it feels like finding your phone after frantically tapping your pants pockets.
In the UK, 97% of the wildflower meadows that used to support pollinator populations have disappeared in the last century. Bees and many other pollinating insects like butterflies and hoverflies need somewhere to live and something to eat. Now take their homes and food away and wonder why we are in a pickle.
Losing 97% of your habitat must feel something like waking up one day to find out that 97% of all houses have been squashed by a lumbering cylops, while all supermarkets have been replaced by sandpits. You search for food and find nothing, some others getting lucky by chancing upon a lone hotdog stand undisturbed. The remaining houses in your street are in extreme demand, competition resulting in fierce confrontations in order to secure a safe place to stay.
There are many other factors that play into the demise of pollinators, like the use of pesticides and other effects of climate change, that I won’t discuss here. Because it is the loss of pollinator habitat that you can address by yourself today.
No matter how much outside space you have, there is always something you can do. My balcony is no more than 1 m2 (about 12 ft2) and I remember being nervous to find out if any bees would show up.
Since I started in February, I’ve seen more than 10 different species of bees and many other insects that I managed to identify using a photo scanning app (I used waarnemingen.be, but I have heard great things about iNaturalist). What’s more, multiple mason bees have laid their eggs in the insect hotel I put up.
Pollinators are looking for food and shelter, and you can help them find both.
Getting started on your pollinator balcony or garden
Get yourself a bug hotel! They are easy to make or cheap to buy, help homeless solitary bees find a home, and enable you to creep on crafty bees in the act of homesteading. Honeybees are not interested in your hotel (you will not be swarmed) and the solitary bees that do visit are not aggressive.
Since they are alone and don’t have a hive to back them up, they are quiet neighbors that just want to lay their eggs in a safe place. When you come too close, they will just fly away and come back later to finish the job.
Place the insect hotel in a sunny spot. Bees are ectothermic which means they are dependent on outside temperature to warm and wake them up. If you don’t have a space where the sun shines throughout the day, stick with a spot that gets some decent morning sun to get your bees out of bed.
Bees don’t like open-ended nesting spots, so make sure the tubes (e.g. drilled holes or hollow reeds) are closed on the back. Also, be careful not to buy an insect hotel where the outside of the tubes are rough and unsanded because this might damage the bee’s wings when scrambling in and out of their nest.
When picking out your plants, there are a few things to pay attention to.
First, I bought my pollinator-friendly plants from an organic grower. This is important, because pesticide use on food sources for pollinators can make them sick or kill them. Moreso, social bees might carry the pesticides back to their hives and poison it.
Secondly, pick a selection of plants that flower throughout the year. Different bees fly out in different periods ranging from early spring to late summer, while honey- and bumblebees pretty much carry on throughout the season. It’s great to have your lavender blooming during the luscious summer months, but what about the early risers like some of the bumblebees? Can’t get all cute and chubby if there’s nothing for you to eat.
One solution is to buy a wildflower seed mix that is preselected to flower throughout the season (again, make sure they are not treated with insecticides), but with a little bit of research, you should be able to pick a combination of (preferably native) plants that establish a reliable food source throughout the year. It’s hard to say what works where you are based, since pollinator populations and their food sources are different everywhere.
Lastly, not every pollinator has the same diet. Many bee species co-evolved with a specific species of plant so that they had a monopoly on its nectar and pollen, while the plant received reliable pollination from bees that didn’t visit other plants (thus “wasting” their pollen).
Honey- and bumblebees usually aren’t too fussy, but it’s important to remember that a single row of wildflowers might just support a specific population of pollinators. Simply mowing the flowers on the side of the road at the wrong time can effectively starve such a population to death.
Having already lost much of their natural habitat, our balconies and gardens can’t save all pollinators. Rather, we should be more careful how we treat the remaining 3%.
Tending gardens and balconies in a pollinator-friendly way is a start, but ultimately those of us living in the city should start dreaming of a landscape that supports humans and pollinators alike.