Among the Minnesotans fighting to protect pollinators, Heather Holm is a queen bee.
She concentrates on educating people about the solitary pollinators that most people don’t even notice: the 425 varieties of native bees in Minnesota that are suffering just as much as honeybees, which aren’t even native; they were imported from Europe during Colonial times.
“There’s been too much emphasis on one introduced species,” Holm said. “I’m trying to educate people about the large diversity of bees and their variety of needs. There are bumblebee species that are endangered, and there’s some evidence that honeybees have a negative effect on the native population.”
The transplanted Canadian published her first book, “Pollinators of Native Plants” (pollinatorsnativeplants.com), in 2014, just as concern about bee and pollinator decline was exploding. The self-published book sold over 10,000 copies. Her second book, “Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide,” came out in February and already has won four awards for excellence.
Holm, 45, came to her fascination with pollinators gradually, but she has spent much of her life outdoors. She grew up north of Toronto, exploring woodlots and examining flowers on and near her parents’ small family farm. She has horticulture and entomology degrees and took a lot of classes on insects. But in the 1990s, she said, “the emphasis was on how to figure out what all the bad insects were and how to kill them.”
She worked as a web developer and designer and as a city horticulturist in Maryland, where she met her future husband, Brent, who is from Wisconsin. He wanted to move back to the Midwest. Fourteen years ago, they bought a little house on ⅔ of an acre in Minnetonka. Charmed by the mature oaks — but not by the buckthorn and the lawn — Holm tackled a full restoration of the landscape.
It was a massive job that meant more than tearing out old plants and replacing them. “On the urban landscape, there’s too much of a seed bank and you can’t do a passive reversion,” Holm said. “The weeds will overtake the natives. It’s a huge undertaking, similar to planting a new garden.”
Today the orange daylilies and barberries are gone, and only about 10 percent of the lawn is left. There’s a prairie in the sunny area, a restored woodland and two rain gardens that filter runoff from the driveway and house. All of the plants on the property are natives.
Now that it’s mature, Holm’s landscape is pretty low-maintenance, she said. She spends half a day in the spring cutting down dead perennials and a full day mulching the woodland paths.
“People come here and say they feel like they’re in the North Woods,” Holm said. “It looks like a natural landscape, and it’s sort of my experiment station. For the first book, I did the majority of the photography in my own yard.”
Always observant, Holm, over the years, noticed that certain pollinators were attracted to certain plants. “I wanted to know more, why they were so specific,” she said. So she took pictures to record what she saw. “I started with photography and research, and finally published the first book to illustrate a small part of those interactions.”
Holm had started a landscape design and consulting company when she moved to Minnetonka but after her first book came out, she started spending all her time on speaking engagements, educational programs, helping with pollinator research at the University of Minnesota and working on her publishing business. She designed and published her new book as well as the first, and for every book she sells, she donates $1 to the U for bee research.
Bees have gotten a lot of attention in recent years. But most of the public awareness of bee problems is about honeybee issues, such as colony collapse. Holm concentrates on educating about the homegrown pollinators that are suffering — peaceful solitary bees that spend their lives largely alone, building nests in the ground, in crevices and in flower stalks.
Native bees are big and small — from giant bumblebees to tiny flies that hover in clouds over plants such as goldenrod. There are bees that cut perfect circles in leaves to create their nests, bees that collect fibers, bees that look for exposed soil and burrow underground to create their nurseries.
One of the best things gardeners can do for cavity-nesting pollinators is to leave about 15 inches of dead stems on perennials like asters, goldenrod and thistles standing in the garden, Holm said. Perennials will cover the dead stalks as they resprout in the spring, and leaving the old stems standing can even act as a deer deterrent, she said.
Wood mulch is hard for ground-nesting bees to penetrate, so Holm uses it only on the trails through her woods, and uses chopped-up perennial material to mulch the rest of the gardens.
She is thinking about a new book, and each day she spends time in her yard with a camera, watching insects and plants. Her favorite place is her rain garden with big plants — Joe Pye weed, ironweed, boneset. People are almost afraid to plant these bold giants, she said, yet having them in the yard means she can observe everything at eye level.
Just by watching their gardens, people can learn a lot, she said.
“It’s critical because with climate change, species will disappear,” she said. “And because of the lack of data about the bees we had 100 years ago, we don’t know how populations are changing.”
That the world is growing more urban is no deterrent to saving pollinators, she said. Gardeners can do a lot in their own backyards — and in public green spaces along creeks and at the edges of fields and parks, to help bees moving through the area. Many of the solitary native bees don’t fly long distances.
“There is the potential to support large numbers of bee species in cities,” Holm said. “We can connect big urban areas with gardens that support pollinators. This is really underutilized space.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, Hennepin County Master Gardener and Tree Care Advisor.