Pollination is all about plant sex. Yes, there is sex in the garden, be it plant sex, bee sex, bat sex, bird sex, and yes, sometimes human sex. The transfer of sticky powder (pollen) from the male stamen to the female stigma, has developed over thousands of years by plants rooted to the ground. Plants are unique in that they need this transfer done by other agents, since they are stationary and have developed some ingenious strategies to get this essential service done.
Plants are chemical factories, attracting pollinators with color combinations and chemically produced scents. When animals such as bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and hummingbirds pollinate plants, it is accidental. They are not trying to pollinate the plant. Usually they visit the plant to obtain food, the sticky pollen or a sweet nectar made at the base of the petals. When feeding, the animals or insects, accidentally rub against the stamens and cover themselves with pollen, kind of like a tar baby rolling in feathers. When the pollinators move to another flower to feed, some of the pollen rubs onto this new plant’s stigma. Most plants depend on animals to do this, or sometimes wind for their reproduction and ultimately their survival. I am starting a series of posts on attracting native pollinators, since as a beekeeper for over 15 years, I am very concerned with the decline of the social honey bee, and want to learn more about the solitary mason bee and other solitary native bees, as well as the vast array of other pollinators – bats, butterflies, beetles, flies, voles, mice, small mammals, and various insects. I will be posting on:
How to ensure pollination in your garden
How to identify the flower-visiting insects in your area
Which host plants and nesting sites are best for bees and butterflies, and all pollinators
Ways to create a beautiful, diverse, and pollinator friendly landscape
Why are Pollinators Important?
Why should we care? Here are just a few reasons why we should be concerned, even if you aren’t a gardener.
- Pollinators play a critical role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, and forage crops, more than 1/3 of the farmed products in the US. Native bees, including the blue orchard bee and numerous bumble bees and other native bees, are significant pollinators, and on a bee-per-bee basis are more effective than honey bees.
- Pollinators are essential to plant reproduction,yes- plant sex!
- Pollinators support plant communities that in turn stabilize the soil, preventing erosion, and keep our waterways clean.
- Mammals depend on insect-pollinated plants for fruits and seeds to survive.
- Pollinating insects are food for birds, lizards, and spiders, which is part of the overall food web. The food web which you probably heard about in basic biology is very important! and also key to our survival at the top of the food chain.
Pollinators are a keystone species group which means that the survival of many of other species depends on them. It is like the “falling domino” effect. Remove one piece and the entire system collapses. In China, in one of the largest pear producing regions in the world, farmers perch on ladders in trees to pollinate the blossoms by hand, because native species have disappeared. Honey beekeepers refuse to bring in their hives because of the prevalence of pesticides in the fields, and the Chinese have adjusted to this, but at what cost? I don’t see people in the U.S. getting up in trees to hand pollinate each and every blossom.
From Wikipedia, ” Pears grown in Hanyuan County, of China have been hand-pollinated since regional bees were wiped out by pesticides in the 1980s (though the pears were pollinated by hand, in order to produce better fruit, even before the bees were destroyed). If humans were to replace bees as pollinators in the United States, the annual cost is estimated at $90,000,000,000.”
Reasons for Decline
There are four reasons that the native populations are declining and disappearing;
Loss of habitat; also habitats that remain are fragmented
Degradation of remaining habitat
Spread of diseases and parasites; there is evidence that these are spreading from the non-native honey bee to the native bee
What Can We Do?
To reverse this disastrous trend, there are many practical things that we can do. By learning about the native life cycles and understanding how our actions can impact their environment, I hope that we can stem the tide before it is too late.
These steps are easy for anyone who has a yard or just a balcony.
- Mud/Water – Provide some water with a bird bath, or just create a damp spot in your garden. Make a bee mud puddle. An easy way to do this is to take a one gallon plastic milk jug and put a pin hole in the bottom. Put the jug on the ground the water leaks out slowly and creates a mini mud puddle. Wood ash added to mud or sand and will sometimes attract puddling male butterflies.
- Give up the mulch! Keep some bare dirt exposed. Most native ground-nesting bees, need patches of bare ground to nest. Some hide their nest entrances under leaves. Sand piles and ditch banks are also important as potential nest sites for bees.
- Leave some dead wood in your backyard. Dead wood provides shelter and nesting space for many beneficial insects, including leaf cutter bees and mason bees. Entire trees or even branches will suit this purpose. Birds will also appreciate these. These are important for wintering over larvae.
- Provide artificial nesting sites for native bees. Something as simple as a length of untreated 4×4 or 2×8 drilled with holes for nest tunnels. Artificial nesting habitats can also be made with bundles of reeds and bamboo bound together. I will be posting an example of a home-made mason bee habitat in the next installment.
- Put out a small plate of freshly cut pieces of banana, oranges, apples and other fruit. If you can, place this in the shade so it does not dry out and keep it fresh.
- Reduce or eliminate fertilizer and pesticide use. This is probably the most important thing that you as a homeowner can do that will have lasting impact.
- Learn how to identify beneficial insects that eat bugs and other pests you don’t want in the garden. This will help you to find a balanced population of spiders, ladybugs, bees, and other beneficial insects to fight against pests in your yard. For an excellent post on attracting beneficial insects, go to Attracting Beneficial Insects.
- Plant nectar and pollen rich flowers in blocks of at least 4′ x 4 ‘. Providing a visible target for pollinators, is much more efficient because it takes greater energy to find single plants to pollinate. Look for my next post on the best plants to add to your garden.
Next up- Planting the right kind of plants, and providing custom made housing for pollinators.