Why should you care about native and wild pollinators?
Most of our commercial agriculture relies on a single pollinator, the honey bee. But in recent years parasites and other factors have led to a steep decline in their numbers. Relying on a single insect for the pollination of our food supply can lead to big crises when something goes wrong. Luckily we have a way to mitigate big swings in honey bee populations. There are a huge number of effective, native and wild pollinators that can supplement the honey bees’ work and, in some cases, even do it better and at a cheaper cost to farmers! We just need to give these insects the support they need to thrive.
What are native and wild pollinators and how do they differ from honey bees?
There are hundreds of species of native bees and flies that pollinate plants. Their differences are fascinating and exciting, and the more you learn the more amazing they become! Like honey bees, native pollinators are insects that visit flowers and transfer pollen between plants, mostly using the hairs on their bodies. Unlike honey bees, they come in all shapes, sizes, behaviors and tolerances. This wide range of differences help them pollinate a huge range of plants.
For instance, flies prefer flowers that are wide and open with the nectar readily available (like carrot and onion flowers) because they can’t reach nectar that’s too deeply hidden. They don’t transfer pollen as effectively as bees, but make up for it by visiting so much more often.
Bumblebees are able to reach pollen of flowers certain shapes, such as tomato flowers, that honey bees can’t even reach. Due to a unique ability to “buzz” their wings, bumblebees are able to buzz the pollen right out of the flower without having to have the usual physical access to the pollen.
Blue Orchard Bees can tolerate cooler weather than honey bees, which makes them great pollinators of apple orchards that tend to bloom in earlier months, which are cooler and more prone to inclement weather. Many fewer Blue Orchard Bees are needed to pollinate
Strawberry flowers require a lot of pollination at different heights. Honey bees tend to pollinate one part of the flower well, but don’t focus on other parts of the flower, which can lead to malformed berries. A mixture of native pollinators, each focusing on different parts of the flower, lead to juicier, more perfect berries.
How can we help these pollinators?
All pollinators, like us, need a place to build a home and a steady source of food. Honey bees are lucky to have bee keepers that tend their hives and move them from place to place so they always have access to flowers. Here’s how we can help do the same for wild and native pollinators:
1) Learn about the different kinds of pollinators in your neighborhood
What pollinators are in your area? What are their behaviors? What kind of flowers and houses do they need?
2) Provide them what they need
— Plant flowers in your area that will attract and sustain these pollinators. Try to plant a variety of plants that will flower throughout the pollinator’s lifecycle, not just in one season.
— Don’t use insecticides.
— Provide housing that suits their needs. Some pollinators want to burrow in the ground, some want to burrow and live in wood. The more you know about what they need, the better you can help them
3) Learn even more!
Our agricultural system is currently mainly structured to be pollinated by honey bees. But research has been done on ways to attract and maintain native pollinators. Sometimes it’s as simple as planting a row of native flowering plants along the edge of the field. If you’re someone, like me, who isn’t a farmer and can’t directly affect large-scale farming practices, what you CAN do is learn more. When you know more, you can share your information with others. If the opportunity arises where your opinion makes a difference, such as choosing a product or voting on a decision, you will be more able to make a good choice.
How can you learn more about pollinators?
1) Start looking around you!
Before I started researching for my 2020 Native Pollinators Farmer’s Market Calendar, I had NO idea of the diversity of insect life around me. Once I just started looking, it was mind-blowing to see all the cool pollinators I had missed. I started seeing fabulous bees and flies that I had only read about, right in my own backyard. Watching them is relaxing, fun, and extremely informative. Plus, you spend more time outside, which is always great.
There is SO MUCH information online and in books on this subject. You don’t need a PhD in the subject, but you should make sure you’re reading reliable information. Some online places I looked to create my calendar were articles in the Xerces Society, research papers on Google Scholar, releases from the USDA and governmental organizations, and even Wikipedia (for a basic introduction that helps you know where to start).
3) Try ID-ing with an app
I have really loved using iNaturalist, which is a resource that helps identify plants and animals. It has both an app version for the phone and a website. Take a photo of any creature you see and its AI will probably have a pretty good idea of what it is. The enormous community behind iNaturalist will also often step in to ID your observation.
4) Stand on the shoulders of giants
You can join a club or society, talk to an expert, visit a museum, or take a course in the subject. I’m very lucky to live close to the amazing Essig Museum of Entomology and its world-class collection of pollinators. I was able to view their specimens in order to create the images for my calendar. From seeing photos online, I had assumed that all the pollinators were honey-bee size, because most photos online crop the photo so the insect takes up roughly the same amount of space. I didn’t even question size assumptions. But actually many are much smaller than honey bees! Seeing that in person made me truly understand why different bees are better at pollinating different sizes of flowers.
This was what I did, but you should learn in whatever way is fun for you!