Encouraging Plant Pollinators, by Steve R.

Editor’s Introductory Note:  Over the years, we’ve published several articles on beekeping in SurvivalBlog. But this is our first fundamental article on pollinators.  If you want to have abundant crops, then you should encourage pollinators, locally! – JWR

We are getting help with crops, fruits, nuts, and vegetables from little flying, crawling things you probably know little about. They are animal pollinators of plants. A book about pollinators has a first sentence of the first chapter that says it is impossible to overstate the service they provide to plants. You can do a lot to help pollinators, no matter where you live, to give them much-needed habitat that will allow them to thrive.

According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) more than 100 grown crops in the US rely on pollinators. These crops include apples, blueberries, strawberries, melon, peaches, potatoes, and almonds. Wild berries also need pollinators. In dollar terms, the added revenue to grown crop production attributed to pollinators is valued at about $20-30 billion. Yes, the dollar figure comes from federal agencies and varies between them, so skepticism is warranted. There’s no doubt, though, pollinators are important to the US farm economy. Worldwide, they pollinate 75-95 percent of all flowing plants and more than 1,200 crops according to the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.

A pollinator is any living thing that helps carry pollen from a male part (anther) of a flowering plant to a female part (stigma) of the same or another flower. Not all plants need pollinators, of course, because they self-pollinate or rely on wind and rain. For those more than 100 grown crops in the US and wild berries, however, this movement of pollen, a form of genetic material, must occur for the plant to become fertilized and produce fruit, seeds and new plants.

We typically associate pollinators with honey bees, with good reason since we’ve heard about them our entire lives. They aren’t native to North America, instead having been imported from Europe in the 17th century. But almost everyone loves honey! A scan of grocery store shelves, especially the cold cereal section, shows a wide range of products that incorporate honey flavoring. The USDA says in 2019 our honey bees produced 157 million pounds of honey valued at $309 million (see previous statement about government sources).

There are 3,500 to 4,000 species of bees in the US, again depending on which government source used. In Missouri, where I live, the Department of Conservation says we have at least 450 species of native bees, including bumblebees. Regardless of the specific number, there are a lot of species and they pollinate.
Some people have a justified fear of bees because of a severe allergic reaction when stung. Others just don’t like getting the occasional sting! Personal protection for those with a severe allergy to stings is justified, and a quickly-available antidote injection can save the life of someone who does get stung. However, for those of us without the life-threatening allergy an attempt to eradicate bees from your surroundings might be extreme considering their benefits.

Bees are considered to be the most important animal pollinators. They seek certain flowering plants in search of pollen as food to take back to the hive. It is then usually moistened with nectar or floral oil and used to feed larvae. Nectar is used as food for the bee. Flowering plants have sugars in nectar, and pollen has protein, fats, vitamins and minerals.

However, bees aren’t the only ones. Also important in providing pollination service are birds (hummingbirds come to mind immediately), bats, flies, wasps, beetles, spiders, ants, moths, and butterflies. When all of them visit, pollen sticks to their bodies while they are in search of food, prey, mates, shelter, and nest-building materials.

Among the butterflies, the monarch is no doubt the most recognized. It is a good pollinator, but not as effective as bees. What makes it remarkable is that it is the only insect in North America that has a migration pattern across three countries. Starting in the early fall, eastern and northeastern populations from southern Canada and the US start heading south to their overwintering sites in Mexico, arriving in November and gathering in immense congregations. They head back north in March. No individual butterfly makes the entire round trip. Female monarchs lay eggs for the next generation during the migration trip north, then die. Up to five generations are involved in the annual cycle, but the last generation that makes the southern migration in the fall can live up to eight months. Plants that provide nectar to monarchs, especially during their fall migration south, are critical. Sadly, monarchs have experienced declines of 75-80 percent in populations both east and west of the Rocky Mountains.

Plant-pollinator interaction is quite amazing. Bees and other pollinators see blue, green and ultraviolet (UV). They are unable to see red like we do. Specific species of flowering plants, with scent or visual UV appearance, attract specific species of pollinators that have the physical ability to take advantage of the plant’s design. With many plants, the opening of their flowers and production of nectar/pollen is matched with periods of the day or year when their most effective pollinators are abundant.

According to the USDA, the overall health of pollinator populations can be difficult to define and challenging to quantify. This is the case for managed and wild pollinator research, where drivers of their health are multi-faceted, difficult to characterize, and in some cases understudied.

It is widely recognized, unfortunately, that pollinator range and numbers are declining and face many challenges. In the last decade, there has been a major loss of hives for domestic honey bees in the US, for example, with beekeepers losing more than 30 percent of their bees each year. About 30 percent of North America’s bumble bee species are in significant decline, including some that were formerly common and widespread.

Habitat loss, disease, parasites, and pesticides all contribute to reduced numbers. Some that can’t find the right quality of food within their flight range don’t survive. The average foraging distance for native bees, for example, ranges from about 50 feet to half a mile.

This is where humans can help. An important thing is to have native plants on farms, ranches, gardens and even urban yards. Native species of plants support native species of pollinators. Establish native wildflower gardens or areas with a mix of species that offer a variety of color and blooms throughout the spring to fall growing season where you live. Flowering shrubs are also helpful.

If you have a farm or ranch, you probably already have at least some native plants growing in hedgerows, odd field corners, roadsides or wet areas. Add enough seeds to achieve 25 or more species to provide all-season flowering for a variety of pollinators. Control of invasive plants such as teasel is important so they don’t suppress growth of the natives. Keep in mind that native plants are adapted for long-term survival, so many seedlings will sprout growth of only a few inches the first season. Patience will eventually be rewarded.
Controlled burning, where appropriate, actually encourages native plant growth and controls some invasive plants. This practice increases bee ground nesting because it reduces plant litter. To protect bees, burning should be done late fall to early winter and only one-third of the area at a time.

Most native bees nest underground as solitary individuals, and the closer nesting areas are to good food sources the better it is for bee survival. Maintain relatively small areas of bare or nearly bare ground in or near your native plants if erosion isn’t an issue. That’s where bees like to burrow for nest sites.

Home gardens can support pollinators as well. It’s even been shown that in many cases suburbs and cities have a more diverse pollinator communities than wild areas. Dandelions are the first food for bees emerging in the spring, so do them a favor by leaving them in areas of your yard where you can tolerate their existence.
So perhaps you are convinced you should support pollinators. It’s easy to find help. There are a variety of sources that provide information, technical advice, and even financial help.

The USDA is engaged in a big way. The federal farm bill requires the agency do pollinator research and make information available to the public. It releases an annual report describing its priorities. The report provides an overview of its pollinator programs, of which there are 15 as of 2022 (available online). It could be argued that this is another example of bureaucratic excess or mission creep, but the agency is committing significant resources to helping build pollinator numbers. USDA has labs devoted to bee research in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Beltsville, Maryland; Tucson, Arizona; Logan, Utah; Stoneville, Mississippi; and Davis, California. It also has research contracts with land-grant institutions. USDA’s Farm Service Agency provides financial assistance to eligible producers of honey that have bee kills due to disease and certain adverse weather events.

Another source of information is the North American Pollinator Protection Program, a group of scientists, researchers, conservationists, government officials and volunteers (https://pollinator.org). It has developed more than 30 online planting guides for all regions of the US.

There’s also the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. It has an online Pollinator Conservation Resource Center which provides region-specific resources to aid in the planning, establishment, restoration, and maintenance of pollinator habitat. It has private-sector biologists working with food companies, processors, handlers, and farmers for sustainability initiatives on farms and ranches.

If you want to take a shortcut, just put the term “Pollinator guide for [your state]” or “Native flowering plants in [your state]” or similar wording in a search engine. There’s lots of advice on YouTube as well.