Bee-utiful Pollinators

Happy National Pollinator Week! Pollinators are animals that help fertilize plants. The honeybee is probably what first comes to mind when you think about pollinators. The honeybee is a non-native insect introduced from Europe that has naturalized in the United States, but there are other types of native bees that also help pollinate plants. According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, there are at least 4,000 native bee species in the United States. Many of these are solitary, meaning they don’t live in a hive.

A bumble bee on a native flower in Chatfield State Park. Bumble bees can be nectar thieves, chewing through the flower's petals to gain the nectar without pollinating the plant. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A bumble bee on a native flower in Chatfield State Park. Bumble bees can be nectar thieves, chewing through the flower’s petals to gain the nectar without pollinating the plant. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Other pollinators include butterflies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds, ants, and bats. Color may play a big role in attracting some pollinators. For instance, for night-flying moths, white flowers, which reflect light best, are highly sought after. Hummingbirds seem to be attracted to the color red, though they’ll also sip nectar from other colorful plants. They favor plants with long, tubular flowers, which are designed specifically to fit the bird’s long beak and tongue. Some ants are good pollinators for plants that are low to the ground. Those plants often have an odor of decay that helps to attract them.

I’m landscaping my backyard to encourage more pollinators to come visit my yard so I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately. Did you know that 75 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Many of those plants are the ones we eat so we have a personal stake in ensuring healthy pollinator populations. Even so, our pollinators are threatened. The loss of habitat due to human encroachment, diseases such as white nose disease in bats, and the use of pesticides and insecticides that harm not only the target species but beneficial pollinators as well, are all reasons for the decline in pollinators.

Male broad-tailed hummingbird at Chatfield State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male broad-tailed hummingbird at Chatfield State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Another major reason for the decline in pollinators is the fact that as more land is cleared for housing, more acreage is transitioning from native plants to non-natives and lawns. I’ve spoken about non-native plants before, but the spread of lawns is also detrimental to pollinators. The typical fescue or bluegrass lawn is essentially an ecological wasteland for wildlife. That’s because fescue and bluegrass were introduced from Europe so our native wildlife, including our pollinators, didn’t co-evolve with them. That means that very few species eat or otherwise use typical lawn grasses. Lawns also tend to use a lot of water and require a lot of chemicals if you want to keep them green and weed-free.

Ant on a common blackberry flower in Acadia National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Ant on a common blackberry flower in Acadia National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

So what can you do to protect and encourage pollinators? First, stop using pesticides and insecticides or, if you must use them, make sure you investigate which ones can be harmful to pollinators and choose another option. Also, follow the directions on the label. Not only is it wasteful to spray an insecticide right before it rains, but it can wash into lakes and streams as well. Second, think about reducing the size of your lawn and choose some native plants to incorporate into your landscape. There are several nurseries across Colorado that sell native plants or you can buy native seed online and grow your own. Third, provide shelter for pollinators. Moths often bed down in dead leaves for the day so by leaving some leaves unraked, you can encourage them to come to your yard. Not deadheading grasses and flowers immediately after the spring bloom can also encourage insects to take refuge in or among the stalks. For the more dedicated, you can buy or make your own bee house for solitary bees.

Pollinators are fascinating creatures that deserve our respect and support and, with a little effort, we can make a difference and ensure that they keep on pollinating.

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