Attracting Native Pollinators

By: Kathy Van Mullekom, Newport News, Va., Daily Press

Bumble bee

The troubled lives of honeybees get a lot of media attention.

Yet, many other pollinators are in serious trouble, according to Eric Mader, assistant pollinator program director with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“In some cases, their fates are potentially worse,” he says.

“For example, a number of our roughly 50 native bumblebee species are in precipitous decline, with a couple of species likely having gone extinct in recent years, and a few other possibly teetering on the brink of extinction.

“Similarly, the once ubiquitous monarch butterfly has declined to some of the lowest population levels ever documented since scientists first began tracking their numbers in the 1970s.

“While the monarch butterfly is not going to become extinct anytime soon, the mass annual migration of monarchs across North America is dwindling, and leaving our experience of the natural world poorer as a consequence.”

These alarming declines in pollinators motivated the society, founded in 1971 and named after the extinct Xerces blue butterfly, to author the just-released book, “Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies.” The 384-page, softback book features chapters that cover why you should care about pollinators, biology of pollination, threats to pollinators and how you can help pollinators.

“The book, while ostensibly ‘about native pollinators’ is really a vehicle intended to reconnect people to the greater ecology of the world around them,” says Mader.

Which is why it’s written in an easy-to-read manner for everyday people. Simple garden designs are outlined for residential gardens, school and office sites, roadside plantings, riparian buffers and field-like habitats. Its many full-color photographs and illustrations offer appeal to schoolage children.

Chapters in the back of the book profile native pollen and nectar plants for all planting regions and suggest host plants for the caterpillars that morph into butterflies.

Why care about pollinators?

Even if you have no green thumb, these tiny creatures have a profound impact on your daily life because more than a third of our food supply relies on the plants they pollinate.

“We all eat food produced by pollinators, whether it is insect-pollinated fruits or vegetables, or even meat or dairy products produced by animals that are fed insect-pollinated forage crops like alfalfa or clover,” says Mader.

“Pollinators contribute to higher cotton yields, which impact the prices of our clothing, and pollinators produce a number of oilseed crops like canola, which are increasingly being used for energy.”

Importantly, pollinators are also central to biodiversity of the natural world by helping native plants reproduce, producing fruits and seeds that feed other wildlife such as songbirds and grizzly bears.

Important little-known pollinator?

Our roughly 4,000 species of native bees, as a group, are overlooked, according to Mader. Many people assume the honeybee is native to North America, but, in fact, it was first imported by Europeans in the 1600s.

“Our native bees represent an amazing diversity of species,” he says.

“They range from large bumblebees that form social colonies of a single queen and her daughter-workers, to tiny metallic blue or green sweat bees that excavate nests in the ground and live solitary lives, laying few eggs on a pollen provision and not living long enough to see their offspring hatch.”

These native bees have complex life cycles. Some nest inside snail shells, some construct elaborate origami-like nests out of carefully folded leaf pieces. And, they have cozy relationships with specific native plants, emerging for only a few weeks each year when their preferred wildlife blooms.

And, contrary to popular belief, most of our native bees are gentle creatures that do not sting.

“If fact, a number of our native bees have stingers too weak to even penetrate human skin,” he says.

How you can help pollinators?

Pollinators thrive in landscapes with weedy, slightly overgrown gardens and big spreading patches of wildflowers.

No yard or farm? You help pollinators when you plant wildflowers in containers on a small balcony.

“Pollinator conservation in some settings can be as simple as putting away the mower and planting wildflowers in your lawn,” says Mader.

“Especially if you include a diversity of native flowering plants in your landscape so there is a succession of different species blooming throughout the year. By including a diversity of native flowering plants, you also support a diversity of different types of pollinators.

“Aside from flowers, pollinators need refuge from pesticides, and messy areas of twigs, brush piles, stones and other natural shelter to lay their eggs and to spend the winter.”

Pollinator pointers

No matter where you live, the common denominators to pollinator conservation are simple, according to The Xerces Society:

•Plant flowers, lots of them.

•Use as many native plant species as possible.

•Don’t use pesticides.

About the book

“Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies,” a guide by The Xerces Society, looks into the world of pollinators, including bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths. The 384-page softback book highlights the roles of these insects in home gardens, farms, parks and natural areas. Included are regional lists of bee-friendly wildflowers, advice on building nests and plans for pollinator gardens, meadows and other landscapes. $29.95; Storey Publishing, Storey.com.

Help the bees

Are you ready to help the bees? The Xerces Society has three online resources that enable you to take the next step:

•Pollinator Seed Store, where you buy regional wildflower seed mixes that provide season-long blooms on pollinator-friendly plants; mixes are locally produced in their respective regions by independent farmers — xerces.org/pollinator-seed.

•Pollinator Conservation Resources Center, where you find additional information to help protect pollinators — xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center.

•Great Sunflower Project, encourages all ages, preschoolers to scientists, to plant a sunflower and count how many bees visit in 15 minutes — greatsunflower.org.

Copyright © 2011, Newport News, Va., Daily Press


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