Native Pollinators- Life Just Wouldn’t be the Same Without Them

1 Apr

Last week I attended a pollinator conservation short course put on by the Xerces Society in collaboration with the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.  I have always been interested in insects and, being a gardener and amateur naturalist, pay a fair amount of attention to what is or isn’t visiting the flowering plants in my yard. Last spring I was dismayed to note that there were almost no pollinators at my long lilac hedgerow or on my strawberries, so this spring I jumped at the chance to learn more about native pollinators and how I might get involved to support them both at home and at work. Here, briefly, are a few key things I learned at the workshop:

1) One of every three bites of food comes from plants pollinated by insect pollinators, and those pollinator populations are facing massive declines.

2) Studies show that 90% of pollination is done by native bees (as opposed to the imported European honey bees that we keep in hives) and other insects like flies, wasps, butterflies, and moths. In fact, it requires 10,000- 25,000 European honey bees (1-2.5 managed hives) to pollinate as much as 250-750 native female orchard bees!  There are also a number of important food crops that require bumble or other native bees for pollination because European honey bees either can’t release the plants pollen or are not attracted to the blossoms because they don’t produce nectar.  These crops include blueberries,  tomatoes, potatoes,  peppers, and eggplant. Put this all together with European honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder, and it only makes sense that we should all be working to support our native pollinators.

3) Most native pollinators are solitary. Since they have no colony to defend they tend not to act defensively (sting) like honey bees might. They nest in the ground (in well drained soil or abandoned rodent burrows), above ground under lodged grasses or brush piles, or  in cavities (in holes in trees, broken hollow branches or stems).

How crucial these insects are to our food system is made really clear by the actions of the Whole Foods Market store in University Heights, RI. To raise pollinator awareness, store employees removed all produce that comes from plants dependent on insect pollinators. The before and after photos (below) are shocking – as are the statistics. The Whole Foods Market’s produce team pulled from shelves 237 of their 453 products – 52 percent of the normal product mix in the department. Among those removed products were some of the most popular produce items: apples, onions, avocados, carrots, mangos, lemons, limes, honeydew, cantaloupe, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, cucumbers, celery, green onions, cauliflower, leeks, bok choy, kale, broccoli, broccoli rabe, and mustard greens.

Big-wholefoods-bees-releasephotoA produce section with and without pollinated food. More at the Whole Foods website.

So what can we all do to help conserve our native pollinators? Again, here are just a few of the ideas that I gleaned from the workshop:

1) Increase and strengthen native pollinator habitat:
– Take some time this Spring to walk your property and check areas with bare, well drained soil for pollinator activity. Are there small (like the eraser end of a pencil) holes in the ground? If so, you probably have natives bees living there! Celebrate for a minute, and then make a commitment to keeping that piece of land as it is for the pollinators.
– Do you have a brush pile or a weedy hedgerow or an unmown area that you have been feeling guilty about? Feel guilty no more! All of those places are potential pollinator habitat!  Put up a sign (visit the Xerces Society) and talk to your neighbors to let them know that it is an intentional messy space and support and encourage others to do the same.

2) Provide pollinators with food:
– Plant a variety of flowering plants (3+) for each season from early Spring to late Fall. Our native Bumble Bees, for example, start being active in April and stay active into October. When possible, plant native plants, shrubs, and trees. (And don’t forget the grass hosts for butterflies…) They are likely to succeed with fewer inputs (water, fertilizer, time) and will benefit your local insects populations more than introduced species.
– When a crop in your garden finishes producing, plant a cover crop in the now empty space, e.g. buckwheat, that will benefit pollinators and, after it has finished flowering, turn it in to benefit your soil.

2) Reduce pesticide use.
– When you can, buy organic produce.
– Reduce or eliminate home pesticide use altogether. All household grade pesticide are lethal, and even organic pesticides can kill bees! If you have to use something, use products like Bt, kaolin clay barrier, pheromone traps, or insect repellents that employ garlic and citrus oil. Read the instructions carefully and follow them.

3) Get to know what our native pollinators (bees, butterflies, wasps, flies, etc.) look like!
– Teach others to recognize the cool diversity of our insects.
-Join one of the citizen science efforts that supports native pollinators in your area. There are many to choose from.

I am planning to share this information with others on campus too, and hope that we can all work together to plan management strategies for our campus and the MacLeish Field Station that will better support our goals and our native pollinators. In the meantime, you can find more information about native pollinators, plant lists, programs to get involved in, and many more resources on the Xerces Society website. Happy reading!

-Joanne Benkley
Assistant Director, CEEDS

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