Bumblebee

This bumblebee feeds on nectar from a salvia. Bumblebees provide buzz pollination which is needed by tomatoes and lavender.

This week, June 22-29, is National Pollinator Week led by the Pollinator Partnership.

The purpose is to bring focus on the beneficial functions of pollinators that include the familiar birds, butterflies, moths and bees but also bats and beetles. Many of these species are in decline.

Why are pollinators important? Mainly, they allow us to eat. According to Pollinator Partnership between 75- 95% of plant species need pollinators to complete the cycle of taking pollen from the anther — the male plant part and take it to the stigma — the female plant part. Without this pollination, plants would not be able to form fruit which includes vegetables because in a botanical sense, vegetables are fruits.

A very wise man, Bill McCaleb, has a saying “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

Think of a life without those wonderful spring strawberries, midsummer blueberries, coffee and yes, even chocolate.

Pollinators are part of a healthy ecosystem.

From the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State, “Plants are the foundation of terrestrial food chains. The foliage and/or fruits and nuts that plants make are eaten by herbivores which in turn are hunted by predators. Furthermore, plants provide shelter and nesting habitat for many different animal species. Thus, in order to maintain the diversity of our natural ecosystems, we need healthy pollinator populations to ensure that the next generation of plants will be produced.”

Pollinators are in decline for several reasons. First is habitat loss. Concrete, asphalt and bricks don’t provide any forage opportunities. Big agriculture may not provide habitat and nourishment for pollinators. Invasive alien plants are the second reason. They take over native plants that have evolved in the ecosystem. Invasive plants often do not provide food sources or desired habitat for pollinators.

Gardeners cannot underestimate the third reason for decline — pesticides. Homeowners should reduce pesticide use if not totally eliminate. Pesticides kill desired species as well as pests. If you have a healthy ecosystem the beneficials will take care of the pest species themselves.

Although you may deny it as a hoax, the coronavirus lockdown showed what happens when fossil fuel use is reduced. The improvement in air quality was tremendous. This means residents need to take the last reason for pollinator decline, climate change, as a real and serious issue.

Because of warmer temperatures pollinator plants may be moving further north or to higher elevations. This leaves local pollinators without their food sources and may lead them to move to a different area potentially displacing other pollinators.

There are things people can do in our their backyard. Plant some native plants to cover the growing season such as columbine, Aquilegia canadensis and False Blue Indigo Baptisia australis for early flowering. Blazing star Liatris spicata and coneflower Echinacea purpurea will bloom midseason. New England aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae and Ironweed Vernonia noveboracensis will round out the season. Moths and bats need night blooming flowers such as moonflower, Datura wrighti and evening primrose Oenothera biennis.

Put out a water source. For birds, a birdbath will do. A shallow pan with some stones will work for bees and butterflies to rest while sipping. If possible, a small muddy area provides minerals for bees and butterflies.

Cut down on the size of the lawn and grow more nectar rich native flowers. Native plants don’t need fertilizer or irrigation once established. If you can provide layers of growth from large trees to understory trees to shrubs to herbaceous plants and then groundcover it will support nesting and shelters for a variety of pollinators. But if you have a small space, plant what works and even if it is just a container it will support some pollinators.

Reduce pesticide use especially those containing neonicotinoids. If you must spray, do not apply when pollinators are actively feeding and plants are blooming. Generally, pollinators will be less active in the early morning and late evening. This also applies to the use of herbicides.

Doing these few things will bring joy as the pollinators enjoy the bounty. My husband and I enjoy sitting on the porch while having a beverage and see who shows up. We see many types of butterflies, hummingbird moths, bumblebees and a variety of birds including hummingbirds. For kids, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has a great downloadable Pollinator Handbook.

While we are all still practicing social distancing due to COVID-19, and all county buildings are closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an extension master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or ask@ssmga.org. Keep washing your hands and plant some natives for the pollinators and sit back and observe their antics.

Cornell is a Southside Master Gardener with the Virginia Cooperative Extension