Pollinators could use your help this winter
“We scaled a million blooms
To reap the summer’s glow.
Now, in the merciless cold,
We share each morsel of heat,
Each honeyed crumb.”
— Joyce Sidman, “Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold,” 2014
Joyce Sidman is regarded as one of the most important contemporary nature poets for children. She’s won numerous awards for her books, including the Newbery Honor for “Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night” (2010) and the Sibert Medal for “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” (2018). Her new book, “Hello Earth! Poems to Our Planet” comes out in February 2021.
Sidman collaborates with different illustrators so her books have a fresh visual appeal, while the combination of her poetry and prose artfully introduces children to important ecological concepts.
Her poem, “Winter Bees” is about honeybees and how they survive in cold weather:
“We cram to a sizzling ball
To warm our queen, our heart, our home
Deep in the winter hive,
We burn like a golden sun.”
However, most of the 500 or so species of bees we have in Oregon don’t live in colonies like honeybees. Instead, they build solitary nests in ground tunnels or wood holes, crevices in woodpiles or rocks, or within hollow plant stems. The bees overwinter in these sheltered locations as either larvae or adults, depending on the timing of the adult’s lifecycle. For example, mason bees tend to overwinter as hibernating adults, and leafcutter bees often overwinter as larvae. The bees enter a state called diapause, which slows their development so they don’t emerge from their protective cocoons until spring.
Bees are a gardener’s best friends, because most of the edible and ornamental plants in our garden require bees for pollination. In winter, it’s reassuring to think that the bees are still there, taking a break before picking up their frenzied pace again next spring.
Bees are just one kind of pollinating insect that requires protective habitat for overwintering. There are also hundreds of species of butterflies in Oregon, and most overwinter in our gardens and landscapes in different stages of suspended development: eggs, caterpillars, pupae or adults. For example, the second generation of Western tiger swallowtails I observed in my garden this year are overwintering as pupae and have wrapped themselves in a chrysalis attached by a silken thread to tree bark, leaf litter or a plant stem.
Gardeners can support overwintering bees and butterflies by making sure they have appropriate habitat in the garden. This includes raking autumn leaves into garden beds and covering them with twigs; leaving dead annual and perennial plants standing until next spring; leaving patches of bare soil where ground-dwelling bees make their nests; and placing a few logs nearby where sweat bees sometimes make their home beneath peeling bark.
Providing habitat for overwintering pollinators means gardeners don’t have to worry about keeping the garden quite so tidy. If having a neat garden is important to you, then clean up the front of the garden that’s more visible, and leave the less noticeable back section for wildlife.
A third kind of pollinator that may be overwintering in our garden is Anna’s hummingbird, the only hummingbird of seven species found in Oregon that doesn’t migrate to warmer climes. Anna’s hummingbirds (named after Anna Massena, Duchess of Rivoli) forage for nectar and insects during the day and then enter a state of torpor at night, during which their body temperature, respiration and metabolism are dramatically reduced.
Even in a semi-catatonic state, hummingbirds deplete all their energy reserves at night to stay warm and awaken close to starvation. They benefit from having a food supply readily available in the garden.
Gardeners can support hummingbirds by hanging feeders with a solution made from one part white sugar to four parts water. Skip the dye; hummingbirds will find the feeders if they’re brightly colored. It’s best to hang multiple feeders in different parts of the yard because Anna’s hummingbirds are fiercely territorial.
The hummingbird solution will freeze at around 27 degrees, so bring the feeder indoors on particularly cold nights or wrap the feeder with insulating material. If you bring the feeder inside at night, be sure to hang it back up early in the morning when hummingbirds are hungriest. An alternative is to use a feeder heater powered by electricity.
All overwintering birds, including hummingbirds, will appreciate having fresh water available. I keep my pond running through the winter; the movement of the water keeps ice from covering the entire surface at night.
Pollinators are important to gardeners come spring, so we should make it a priority to ensure their wellbeing this winter. I’ll end with part of another of Joyce Sidman’s poems called “Chickadee’s Song”:
“From dawn to dusk in darkling air
we glean and gulp and pluck and snare,
then find a roost that’s snug and tight
to brave the long and frozen night.”
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.