Who are the Pollinators and Why Are Pollinators Important

  • Post published:02/16/2019
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Honeybees on coneflowers
Honey bees on coneflowers

Who are the pollinators and why are they important? We all know that many plants need to be pollinated to make seed, and the fruits and vegetables that protect the seeds inside. Pollen is the powdery stuff inside a flower blossom. Sometimes it is not very noticeable. On the other hand flowers like lilies and sunflowers are so laden with pollen that a bouquet of those flowers will shed golden pollen all over the table.

Pollen grains are produced by the male part of a flower, the stamen.  The pollen will either fall on the female parts, the stigma, on self pollinating plants like tomatoes and sunflowers, or it will be carried away to other plants. Pollen can be carried by the wind, or it can be carried by bees, butterflies, bats, beetles, wasps, and even small mammals.

Bees are particularly important pollinators. They are fascinating creatures. Here in Massachusetts we have over three hundred species of bee. They are vital to the pollination of nearly 50% of our agricultural crops. They need to be supported with more flowers that will feed them. Many are familiar: coneflowers, yarrow, coreopsis, asters, columbine, phlox, black eyed susans, and of course, bee balm. This is just to name a few.

Bumble bees are very easy to see because of their size. They often live in small groups near or in the ground. The queen comes out of winter hibernation and lays her eggs. Workers and drones soon hatch and the colony grows as they collect nectar and pollen to feed themselves. Late in the season the queen will start laying queen eggs as well as worker eggs. At the end of the season the old queen will die and the new queens will find their own hibernation spots to begin new colonies.

I have never been very good at identifying any of the other native bees who also take on the work of pollination. Many of them lead solitary lives – until they need to reproduce – and are very small. There are digger bees, sweat bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees, carpenter bees and more.

Wasps like yellow jackets are not interested in pollen, but they do carry pollen from one plant to another as they sip the nectar that they are so fond of.  Though incidental, pollination by wasps is important to agricultural crops. Yellow jackets are aggressive and often mistaken for bees when they sting. They often live in the ground. I once stepped barefoot on a yellow jacket nest and got bad stings, but I did not blame the bees.

I have been a beekeeper and was rarely stung. I had to give up beekeeping when I developed an allergy to bee stings, but I have taken it upon myself to remind people that bees are not really interested in people. We offer them no pollen or nectar. The thing to remember is that bees cannot see slow movements. If a fearful person starts wildly waving and shooing away a bee, that person will attract the attention of the bee that will be frightened and angry. That bee is much more likely to sting.

Whenever I am talking to children about bees I always stress that if a honeybee is flying around they should remain calm and still. However, if they do get stung they need to know that it will not hurt very much UNLESS they try to pull out the stinger. It is the poison in the pouch that people pinch to pull out the stinger that will push the poison and the pain into wherever you have been stung. My lesson to the children and everyone is to scrape the stinger out of your skin with a stiff piece of cardboard, or credit card or something of the sort. Whatever you might have at hand. Other sites tell you to remove the stinger and quickly as possible. They do not tell you  to scrape it off. Never pull it out.

Echinacea purpureum – coneflower with butterfly

Butterflies also pass pollen from one plant to another. Butterflies are so beautiful that many gardeners are planting butterfly gardens that will attract butterflies. Many of the flowers that attract bees also attract butterflies. However, butterflies are more particular about the nectar that they prefer, and they also need plants that will feed their larvae. Milkweed is the most familiar host plant for the easily identified Monarch butterfly, but other butterflies need other plants. I haven’t seen a beautiful spicebush swallowtail butterfly in my garden, but along with milkweed to attract Monarchs, I have planted the Lindera benzoin spicebush because it will feed that beautiful butterfly.

We have bats in our attic, but we are grateful that they will also offer pollinating services.

Pollinator populations have been declining, especially in urban areas. We town gardeners are already in action to attract and feed bees, butterflies, and even bats. My backyard garden is filled with pollinator plants in a relatively small area. That density of plants with desirable nectar and pollen is what will attract pollinators. Some of my neighbors also have desirable densities of nectar and pollen plants.

Two of the public gardens in town were designed to attract pollinators. There is the Energy Park right in the center of town, and the new flowery garden at the John Zon Community Center on Pleasant Street.

As you think about choosing seeds for spring, think about flowers that will make your garden beautiful – and support pollinators.

Between the Rows  February 9, 2019

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