Beneficial Insects and Pollination
Pollination is vital to the fertilization, reproduction and survival of all non-GMO food and flower species. Pollination occurs when insects or animals move between flowers of the same species, carrying with them the essential powdery pollen granules from plant to plant that are necessary for fertilization. The result is successful seed and fruit production that will enable your plants to provide bountiful and tasty, full-bodied fruits and vegetables year after year.
Unfortunately, the pollinator garden benefits that sustain us all may be under threat in many parts of the country and the world. That’s because some kinds of pollinators are being threatened by environmental degradation and other challenges.
Who Are the Pollinators?
Exactly who are these pollinators? Birds, bees and bats are well-known pollinators. Although the benefits of bee pollination are widely understood, some types of bee pollinators are threatened by overuse of pesticides because they are extremely sensitive to toxins.
Other pollinators include butterflies, moths, beetles, ants and small insects. Less well known is that some larger animals are also pollinators.
No matter who is doing the pollinating, their survival is crucial for plant reproduction and for human survival too. If pollinators are to do their job, we must pay attention to, protect and provide habitats so they can survive the dual threats of habitat destruction and poisoning due to chemical misuse.
The Threats to Bees and Other Pollinators
We know this threat is real because bees are our “canaries in the coal mine.” In the last 15 years, bees have died off at more than twice the usual rate in what is known as colony collapse disorder.
We have seen bee colonies decline steeply, largely due to habitat destruction and the use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides currently used on more than 140 crops. These “neonics” are applied to the coating of GMO seeds.
Once introduced into the environment, they will kill indiscriminately by poisoning the plant’s pollen and nectar as well as the surrounding competing weeds, the soil and its microorganisms, and the runoff that goes into nearby streams, rivers and lakes. If bees try to pollinate using the pollen from these GMO-treated plants, they will die.
Helping the Pollinators
To offset this pervasive problem, we need to help the pollinators in our area. Those of us with gardening skills can do this easily.
Choose a mixture of perennial plants for spring, summer and fall with varying colors, shapes and scents that will attract pollinators. Incorporating larger perennial plants, shrubs and trees that flower in your landscape, such as dogwood, magnolia, poplar and willow, will help in the long term.
Fruit trees all flower in the spring and would provide a strong attractant for pollinators. This may be a good year to plant a few plum, cherry, apple or pear trees.
Other Types of Pollinators
It has been estimated that there are up to 200,000 different pollinators worldwide. Hummingbirds are the most common avian pollinators in the U.S. Bats, particularly fruit bats in tropical regions, are also major pollinators as well as insect eaters.
The lowly beetle is often overlooked as a pollinator. That’s a mistake, because these little guys comprise 40% of all insects. Their large numbers make up for their diminutive size.
Flies are also common visitors that get around to many plants and flowers during their day’s work. A wide variety of butterflies (more than 700 in the U.S. alone) pollinate while seeking nectar during the daytime. Moths, their nocturnal counterparts, pollinate as we sleep.
A Clear and Present Danger
This incredible and long-standing relationship between the plant and animal world is threatened because many of these pollinators are in danger. As mentioned above, all over the Western world in the last 10 years, colony collapse disorder has caused bees to die at more than twice the usual rate.
Destruction of habitat by housing developments, clear-cutting of forests, urban sprawl and compromised immunity due to viruses, parasites and other environmental contaminants (herbicides, pesticides and chemical dumping) are often named as suspected or contributing factors to this decline. But a recent Harvard study strongly indicates neonicotinoids, a class of neuro-active insecticides in wide use since the 1980s, as the likeliest culprit.
What You Can Do
There are a number of ways you can help. Choosing a mixture of landscaping plants that vary in color, shape and scent that flower in the spring, summer and fall will provide a steady supply of food for pollinators.
Reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides (think organic) in your landscape and vegetable garden will create a healthier environment for all and allow the pollinators to thrive. Finally, incorporating plants that attract pollinators will help tremendously.
Milkweed, also known as butterfly milkweed, attracts the beautiful monarch butterfly that graces many areas in the summer. Milkweed is common to grasslands and dry prairies from Maine to South Dakota and from Florida and California, including the desert Southwest.
Monarchs are an excellent pollinator and certainly worth attracting. They lay their eggs almost exclusively on milkweed flowers but collect nectar from many flowers and flowering vegetables.
Factors essential for the monarch butterfly to survive include landscape gardens where they can find nectar (food) in the flowers. They also need their winter habitat in the forests of central Mexico (Michoacán).
Some Northern California coastal areas (Santa Cruz area) have forests where monarchs also shelter for the winter. You may see large clumps of monarchs hanging from eucalyptus trees in Santa Cruz to keep warm in winter.
Today, the estimated numbers of this beautiful butterfly has gone down from millions 20 years ago to about 25,000 because of deforestation and relentless roadside eradication of “weeds.” Commercial agricultural field spraying of herbicides has also caused serious damage to monarchs.
Planting butterfly milkweed along your perimeter fence lines where it can run wild ( and it will run wild) and in prairie type areas or xeriscape (dry) gardens will help establish it again, because it needs very little water. Milkweed grows from 4 to 6 feet tall, with flowers that run from pink to purple to orange and bloom from June to August. It will become a very distinctive and tall plant in your yard with the help of drip irrigation during the first few years as it gets established.
Where to Find Beautiful Pollinator-Attracting Plants
Now that spring is upon us, get your gloves on, your shovel out and fill those bare spots in your garden or along fence lines with some eye-catching flowering plants. Visit some of the following websites and select plants that will make you glad you started your 2021 gardening season right now: