Do you enjoy eating? Then, thank a pollinator, because without these hard-working animals your choice of fare would be extremely limited. They pollinate over 75% of our flowering plants and nearly 75% of our food crops. They count among their number such animals as hummingbirds, bats, bees, beetles, butterflies, and flies. They carry pollen from one plant to another as they collect nectar. Thus, they ensure that the links of the food chain are not broken and that we and all the animals that depend on vegetation for sustenance do not starve.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak has signed a proclamation designating the last full week in June as National Pollinator Week in order to draw attention to the important role that these critters play in our lives. Many state governors, including Texas' governor, signed similar proclamations, and the week is being celebrated not only in the United States but right around the world. That's as it should be, for where would we be without these guys? Hungrier, that's for sure.
Let's take a look at some of the pollinators that do the essential work of moving pollen around and ensuring the production of food.
Let's start with one that is not so cute or cuddly. Bats get a bad press among many people and yet they are VIPs - very important pollinators - in many parts of the world. Many species of bats visit flowers in darkness to lap at the nectar and eat the protein-rich pollen. Most of these species live in the tropics or subtropics, some of them in areas that are extremely food-challenged, and so their activities are very important. Bats in temperate North America, such as the Little Brown Bat in the picture, are exclusively insectivorous; thus, although they don't help pollinate our plants, they do play an important part in ridding us of harmful flying insects such as mosquitoes.
This may be our most endangered pollinator - the honeybee. The still unexplained colony collapse disorder, pesticides, and mites have destroyed large segments of the honeybee population in this and other countries. This is a serious problem because many food crops are dependent upon this pollinator. Some, like almonds, are totally dependent upon them and could not survive without them. Without the workaholic honeybee, it could indeed become a hungrier world.
But even if all the honeybees disappeared, we would still have bees assisting in pollinating our plants. Our native bees - the honeybee, after all, is an immigrant - are among the hardest-working and most efficient of all pollinators. Bees like the bumblebee, pictured above, as well as the mason bee, sweat bee, carpenter bee and many others play a large role in getting the food to our table and they deserve our protection. Probably the most important step that we can take to protect them as well as other pollinators is to forgo the use of pesticides in our gardens.
We don't often think of flies as pollinators, but, in fact, they as well as many members of the beetle family do act as pollinators. There is an ick factor related to flies, but many of them are colorful and really quite beautiful.
There is, of course, no more beautiful or colorful group of pollinators than the butterflies, represented by this Spicebush Swallowtail. Neither is there any group of pollinators that is more beloved and more welcome in the garden. Just remember: They are insects and insects are killed by pesticides. If you want lots of these pollinators in your garden, don't use pesticides.
There's only one creature that can challenge the butterfly for the affections of gardeners everywhere and that, of course, is the hummingbird. We love to welcome these flying jewels to our yards.
As National Pollinator Week winds down, give some thought to the pollinators that visit your yard and plan how you will help them. Here are three simple suggestions:
1. Plant a pollinator garden. Consider the pollinators you want to attract and plant the plants that they need. A little research will show you what they are. In the case of butterflies, this will include both nectar plants for the adults and host plants for their caterpillars.
2. Build and hang a bee box. There are commercial nest boxes available for mason bees but you can construct a simple one using something like tubes of bamboo. These bees will utilize almost any kind of tube in which to lay their eggs.
3. Avoid or limit pesticide use. This is the most important one of all.
For those of us who like to eat, there are no more important critters than these. Let us all acknowledge that importance by supporting our local pollinators.