Protecting Pollinating Insects
Pollination, or the process of fertilizing flowers by transferring pollen from the stamen of one to the pistil of another, is vital for the survival of not just flowers, but for all life on the planet. While some plants reproduce through other methods, most of the plants we cherish as food sources such as vegetables, fruits and nuts rely upon pollination to produce the edible bodies (fruits) we enjoy. Pollinators also keep plants healthy by ensuring genetic diversity; they spread the pollen from plant to plant, making sure that plants don't interbreed and helping to create new varieties thanks to the magic of genetics. Pollinators are important!
Yet worldwide, and especially in the United States, many pollinators are endangered or threatened. Colony Collapse disorder affects honey bees which are used to pollinate many commercial species of fruit and nut-bearing trees. When the disorder strikes, entire bee colonies can die. In other parts of the world, habitat loss results in the demise of entire insect species. If another species cannot assume pollinating duties, the plants that rely upon those particular insects can die out.
You can do your part to sustain colonies of local pollinators by planting flowers that sustain local insect pollinators, incorporating certain gardening practices and avoiding others. If everyone helped by doing his or her part, pollinating insects can thrive.
Growing Native Plants: Food for Pollinating Insects
Why do insects pollinate flowers, anyway? They have to get something for their trouble, right? Even bugs don't work for free!
Pollinating insects visit flowers because they are attracted to the flowers by scent, color, or sight. When they brush up against the stamen of the flower, pollen attaches to their abdomens and legs or is sprinkled deeper into the flower. Many insects such as various bees return to their hives with the golden pollen, depositing it in the hives. Pollen thus feeds the hive colony and sustains the population. Other insects, such as butterflies, insert an organ called a proboscis into the flower itself and extract a liquid nectar rich in carbohydrates. This is their food. Flowers "pay" pollinating insects for their visit by providing them with life-sustaining food. As the insect visits flower after flower, enjoying the nectar, the pollen is transferred. It's a fair trade; the flowers survive, and so do the insects.
Whether you live in the country or the city, the process of pollination is ongoing throughout the warm months when insects and flowers are plentiful. Many species can survive and thrive on various flowering plants obtained from the local garden center. Native species, however, do best on native flowers: annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs that evolved locally. Planting a small section of your garden with native flowering plants can support local populations of bees.
Plant Native Flowers
What should you plant? To determine native plants suitable for your location, visit your local Cooperative Extension Office (in the United States). They should have a list of native flowering plants suitable for location and gardening zone.
There are numerous benefits to planting native flowers. Benefits include:
- Supporting local colonies of pollinating insects
- Low-maintenance plants that require less water and fertilizer
- Plants better-suited to your local area, with a higher chance of survival
- Less danger of invasive species taking over the garden
- Low to no need for pesticides; most are adapted to whatever local pests attack
A Wildflower Meadow
One especially beautiful method of providing pollinating insects with plenty of flowers for nectar is to plant a wildflower meadow. You can plant a small wildflower meadow in an unused section of your yard, such as next to the garage or shed. Prepare the soil as you would for any garden bed, incorporating plenty of organic material into the soil. Use a mixture of wildflower seeds that include native varieties for your region. Be sure to water the meadow garden well until the plants become established. You may need to weed or cut it back once a year to prevent the natural succession from taking hold; nature usually encourages shrubs and trees to grow where meadows once stood, and meadow gardens can evolve into small forests if you're not careful. Weeding unwanted plants and cutting back wildflower gardens prevents this. The large swath of native plants, and plants that flower at different times during the growing season, will provide pollinating insects with a feast for many months of the year.
Gardening Practices that Encourage Pollinators
Certain gardening practices are beneficial for pollinating insects, while others are detrimental.
- Organic gardening! It's not difficult, and it helps all beneficial insects, not just pollinating insets. Build up the soil and avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and others.
- Planting native plants. It helps feed native bee and other insect colonies.
- Planting colorful flowers near vegetables. It attracts pollinating insects.
- Using pesticide sprays. Sprays that kill bad bugs can also kill the good bugs such as pollinating insects.
- Killing bees and wasps with traps. Leave them alone.
- Planting a single type of flower or vegetable in the garden.
- Using fungicides. These too can harm pollinating insects. Read package labels and use any chemical products only as directed.
Which Insects Pollinate Which Plants?
All flowering plants.
Affected by Colony Collapse
All flowering plants.
Affected by Colony Collapse
550 species of plants
Mostly night-blooming plants.
Other insects (beetles, ants)
Magnolias, water lilies, others
When You Help Pollinating Insects, You Help Yourself
When you help pollinating insects, you help yourself and everyone around you by supporting a vital link in the food chain. The next time you're tempted to swat a wasp or bee, think about how hard it worked to put food on your table. Without that bee or wasp, those beautiful red apples, the bowl of almonds on the table, or the tomatoes in your salad wouldn't be here. Nurture pollinating insects in your garden this year by incorporating sound gardening practices, trying your hand at organic gardening, and avoiding harsh chemicals that can kill or harm pollinators.
© 2014 Jeanne Grunert