Precious Pollinators

Precious Pollinators

Pollinators are always important but, when everything’s in full bloom, we remember just how necessary they really are. Pollinators are absolutely required if we want a healthy, diverse, and productive garden (and life, and ecosystem, and planet).

Pollinator health and populations are declining in general due to a number of factors including use of pesticides and herbicides; habitat destruction, loss, and degradation causing a reduction in available food, mating sites, and nesting locations; introduction of predators and disease; and a lack of floral diversity. The feral honey bees have gone nearly extinct here in the US and many beekeepers sustain heavy losses each winter. More and more species of bats and birds are added to the endangered species list.

But we need these pollinators!

Butterfly on calendula flower Bumblebee on sunflower
First: Pearl crescent butterfly on calendula. Second: Bumble bee on sunflower.

A pollinator is the biotic agent that moves pollen from the male anthers of a flower to the female stigma of a flower to accomplish fertilization of the female gametes in the ovule of the flower by the male gametes from the pollen grain (glad that sentence is out of the way).

The best pollinators have hairy little bodies (that pollen easily sticks to) and exhibit flower consistency. Flower consistency means that they travel to and from the same species of flowers. In doing so, they carry the pollen from flower to flower, fertilizing them. Flowers attract pollinators with the seductive lure of their color, amount of nectar available, flower size, nectar composition, and the depth and width of the corolla (all of the petals of a flower combined).

Wasp on viburnum Bee on viburnum
First: A wasp's smooth body doesn't pick up much pollen from this viburnum. Second: But the bee's fuzzy body collects loads of it.

Of course, my favorite pollinator is the honey bee (I am a bit biased) but there are many more and they are all awesome and equally important. Others in VA include solitary bees, bumble bees, wasps, flies, birds, bats, and beetles. Different pollinators are ideal for different plants, depending on their body composition and flight patterns.

Domestic honey bees pollinate about $10 million of US food crop per year (though there is something to be said about relying so heavily on one species). Bumble bees are amazing because, unlike my little honey bees, they have the ability to pollinate in colder, wetter weather. Pollination done by mammals contributes to about a third of human food crops wordwide. See, we need an assortment of pollinators that are able to pollinate different flowers at different times of the growing season.

Honey bee on dandelion
Oh no, the dreaded dandelion! But, our fuzzy friend has a different perspective. The pollen on her legs will be taken back to the hive where it will be fed to young, developing honey bees.

If you’re interested in planting a garden to help attract native pollinators, here are a few tips:

  • Use native plants that provide a variety of heights, colors, and bloom times
  • Eliminate pesticide and herbicide use (does it help if we say please?)
  • Create shelters: bee boxes and twig bundles, brush shelters, dense shrubs, standing dead trees, pocket meadows
  • Include water: shallow containers with rocks, wet sand or mud
  • Use your imagination, have fun, and enjoy the beauty


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