A busy bee in making pollinators welcome

Tom Sullivan prunes New England Asters at Thats A Plenty Farm in Hadley.

CAROL LOLLIS Tom Sullivan prunes New England Asters at Thats A Plenty Farm in Hadley.

If you like strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, squash or virtually anything else that grows in the garden or orchard, you ought to love bees.

Tom Sullivan of Turners Falls does. He’s been working extra hard to keep native pollinators in business, especially since the honeybee population has been struggling. Sullivan’s own business — Pollinators Welcome — is all about attracting not just native bees, but also butterflies, birds, bats and other pollinators, to gardens.

Since being stung by a bee as a boy in Pennsylvania and having his grandmother explain that bees do plenty of good in the world, Sullivan’s had an appreciation for the insects and even raised bees a few decades ago. He thought about going back to raising bees after graduating from the Conway School of Landscape Design in 2008, but the program there gave him a “whole different perspective.”

Instead of just thinking about designing small landscapes, including plants that could attract honeybees, Sullivan began thinking about gardens in the picture, especially as he began learning about the destruction of native bees. Three bumblebee varieties have been destroyed in the past 10 years alone, he said.

Those native bees — there are 356 species in Massachusetts and 70 percent of them nesting in the ground — become more precious as the honeybee population continues to suffer from a complex array of destructive problems including pesticides, parasites, a lack of genetic diversity, mites and poor nutrition.

“I began to see how everything we do was connected to whatever else is going on, and to see how habitat is being destroyed,” said Sullivan, whose June 5 talk at Sunderland Public Library, “Native Pollinators in Your Backyard” follows a talk on honeybees by Warm Colors Apiary Wednesday. (Both talks are at 6:30 p.m.)

Since 2006, millions of honeybees — originally imported from Europe — have been destroyed by Colony Collapse Disorder, which has affected this region less than those where farms depend more heavily on migratory beekeepers with their hives on trucks.

Half of the nation’s honeybee colonies, and about one-third of those in this region, were destroyed over the last year, said Sullivan.

Yet the honeybee population in this country has never returned to its pre-1990s level, when the number of managed colonies dropped from about 6 million to 2.2 million within three or four years because of a mite infestation. Verroa mites remain the number one problem for beekeepers in this country, according to numerous experts on bees.

But native pollinators are also under siege, says Sullivan, because of the use of pesticides and herbicides as well as the fragmentation of the landscape by development and a suburbanization that favors weed-killing agents to keep manicured lawns pristine.

“It’s like biocide,” said Sullivan. “Everybody’s trying to have the perfect look, where nature is not a perfect look. We have to look at how to get back and incorporate ourselves as being part of nature, instead of looking at this (idealized) landscape.”

So Sullivan started Pollinators Welcome, which has been working for three years at That’s a Plenty Farm in Hadley, to create a seed-bearing nursery of mostly native plants that can attract and build native bee populations.

On a half-acre chunk of the three-acre tomato and garlic farm, which had won a Natural Resource Conservation Service grant to create a meadow and also build a shrubbery barrier from pesticide-bearing winds, owner Michael Katz asked Sullivan to establish a nursery of pollinator-attracting plants. Now in its third year, the project uses a broad mix of plants designed to lure populations of bees that might make a home in the sandy soil not far from the Connecticut River. There are false indigo and echinacia, beard tongue and bee balm, heliopsis and coreopsis, as well as amsonia and rattlesnake plants — more than 20 varieties in all.

Some serve multiple functions, like the sunflowers that Katz hopes to use in producing oil and the elderberry, whose pithy stem can be dug out and used by smaller bees for nesting. Eventually, a nesting box or a battery of them can be used in the center of the other plants to encourage the pollinators to build their populations there.

“It’s designed to attract as many pollinators as possible, so there are different plants in different colors, different sizes and shapes of flowers, so you have the widest array of pollinators,” he said. “Because we don’t really know who’s out there.”

Many bees can travel a mile or more, he said.

“We need habitat in a really big way,” says Sullivan, who believes there’s a serious need to reclaim habitat to reverse the agricultural practice of pulverizing soil — along with bees that live in it — and eradicates a landscape that pollen-loving bees and butterflies need to survive.

Many homeowners want their gardens to look pretty, and a growing number are also paying attention to attract butterflies, says Sullivan, who adds with a smile, “The word ‘pollinator’ is friendlier than ‘bees,” but insists that the vast majority of bees won’t sting, anyway. His aim is to educate the public, through public talks and personal interactions with customers, about the importance of the pollinators, and attract them with plantings.

And as more people pay attention to growing their food locally, Sullivan’s “Yard by Yard” campaign grows in importance.

“They’re going to help almost everything you plant,” says Sullivan. “You’re getting their pollination services for free. I’m trying to reclaim habitat, contiguous habitat, yard by yard,” with neighbors agreeing to plant pollinator-attracting plants maybe three feet deep on either side of a fence to create a six-foot swath of plants that serve as a welcome mat to create “a pollinator reservoir.”

On the Web: www.pollinatorswelcome.com

You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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