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Helping Pollinators in the Garden

Helping Pollinators in the Garden
World wide we are loosing our pollinators – our birds, bees and other insects, and our nocturnal animals such as possums and bats.  And without pollinators we don’t eat.  It sounds bizarre but it is true, that without bees and other pollinators we die. It is a pretty simple equation; everything that goes onto our dinner table relies on bees or other pollinators.  Without pollinators our forests will de-evolve back to ferns, without pollination the high yield, high-energy plants (monocotyledons & dicotyledons) will wither and die.
The decline of larger animals – birds, bats and possums, is mainly due to loss of habitat through land clearing.  The decline in pollinating insects is due to the use of insecticides, and the main killer for these small pollinators are systemic insecticides*. All insecticides they are like bombs, they are non-selective.  And if a contact insecticide acts like a bomb then systemic insecticides act like a nucellar bomb – the residue from its application lasts a long time.
Because of the insular nature of the Australian population the first time most Aussies will notice there is a problem is when the Supermarket shelves start to get bare.  Australians lead by our politicians will rightly blame farming practices.  But what our farmers do is only part of the problem; the predominance of the use of systemic sprays around our houses, on our gardens and in public places is growing.  And there is evidence from overseas that home gardeners over use systemic insecticides (there have been higher concentrations measured in tissue samples from gardens than from farms).  So the general population is also the problem … and can also be part of the solution as explained in the next paragraph.
What gets me is that we don’t have to use them.  When we are healthy we are less likely to get sick.  And like us a healthy vigorous plant has resistances to both fungal and insect attack.  We keep our health up by having a healthy well rounded diet, similarly keep the health and vigore of your plants up by using a well rounded mineral based fertiliser. 
A healthy environment has many checks and balances.  Remember that insecticides are like bombs; they don’t just target bad insects.  Like a healthy environment a healthy garden that has never or rarely had an insecticide used in it will have a good number of predatory insects (good guys) and insect eating birds to keep the plant eating insects in check.  It is to easy, and to simplistic, to reach for the can of insecticide every time we see an insect. 
There is always an underlying problem or weakness when there is damaging insect attack, and using insecticides will further weaken the balance within the garden environment.  So instead of seeing insect attack as a problem, look at the damage as a symptom; it is that the plants are under stress that has led to them being weak enough to succumb to insect attack.  Instead of directly targeting the insects prune the damaged foliage off and give the plant a feed of a well balanced mineral based fertiliser.
I run a nursery that sells ornamental Australian native plants.  I can’t sell plants that have damaged leaves or stems.  Yet it has been over six months (warm months at that) since we have used an insecticide.  I have been controlling insect damage to my plants by keeping the vigore of my plants up through creating and using a superior potting media, selecting and using the correct amount of fertiliser and, if there are problem insects damaging my plants, using vegetable oils**.  In my experience, vegetable oils work as a knockdown for all soft bodied insects and as a deterrent for hard bodied insects.  I also suspect that it acts as a barrier to fungal infection.  I know that I will have to resort to insecticides at some stage but its use will be targeted and for a very short period of time insuring that the numbers of predatory insects are kept up.
So help your environment, improve the health of your garden, be a friend to a bee:
  • Keeping your plants healthy and vigorous. 
  • Improve the population of good insects by not using insecticides.
  • Provide a good healthy habitat for birds by providing food water and shelter.
And year by year the bird a bee population will increase and your fruit bearing plants will provide more food as the balance within your garden and local environment improves.
If enough of us turn away from our dependence on insecticides and use products that improve the strength of the plants within our gardens them Gardens Supply Centres will stop stocking them and promote products that will help improve the garden environment.  And by doing so lessen the use of insecticides as more people become aware of better ways to protect their gardens.  And as more people become aware of the potential problems of insecticide use the governments will respond furthering the discussion … at lest that is my hope.
Nick Hansa
Fairhill Native Plants & Botanic Gardens
* A systemic insecticide is a poison that is taken up by the plants and distributed to every part of the plant, including the flowers and fruit.  Traditionally systemic insecticides are sprayed onto the foliage of the plant but they come in forms that are delivered via the root system.  Systemic sprays can be persistent within the plant for up to four weeks, when applied via the soil it can be persistent for years.  There are many different brands but it is safe to assume that all for them have neonicotinoids as the active ingredient which, in simplistic terms, is a nerve agent.
**There are many recipes for vegetable oil sprays and you can buy them pre-mixed.  The recipe that I use is:  Canola Oil mixed with enough dishwashing liquid to act as an emulsifier (approx. 1 cup of oil to 1 tablespoon of detergent).  This is mix at a rate of 10-15ml. to 1 litre of water.