24 November, 2019

Living With Pollinators

Many insects help pollinate our food crops and almost all of them have suffered setbacks in recent years from human interference in their habitat and lives. It's time to take notice of what humans have done and learn to live with our insect neighbors and how to foster relationships with them. With so many people on the planet, there is less space for the other species but we cannot survive without other species – including insects, or especially insects.

Bees and other insects are not the only critters that help pollinate our crops, although this handout might make it seem that way. We depend on birds, bats and other living beings to help with the pollination chores – however, insects are the one single most important pollinators to be found – and they are overwhelmingly under threat.

As the world's climate changes, many things will be impacted in ways we have failed to appreciate. One of these, most certainly, will be the complex interplay between pollinators and the plants they service. In the last few years of the last century, beekeepers in America became alarmed at the decline in honey bee populations – in fact, by some accounts, the feral bee population in the United States plummeted by 90% while domesticated bees were wrecked by mites and mysterious maladies – including 'colony collapse disorder (CCD)' wherein entire colonies of bees would suddenly self-destruct leaving an empty hive and maybe a few dead bees in its wake, but no clue as to what had happened. Beekeepers panicked as CCD wiped out all of their hives, some of their hives or only their neighbor's hives. Coupled with the corresponding decline in feral populations, the scientific community took sudden notice.

It's not just about the honey. Honey bees are our number one pollinators, keeping our food crops coming to the table as the hives are trucked from field to field. A lack of pollinators, especially the domesticated honey bee, foretells a lack of food production in many plants. The exact reason that bee populations have declined still has the jury sequestered, but we can look at the way bees have come to be kept and consider from that point what we might do to intercede on the behalf of the bee.

First of all, most honey bee colonies in the last part of the twentieth century have been in the hands of commercial beekeepers. Not only were they producing honey, but part of their income came from renting their bees pollinating services to citrus and almond growers, to name but a few. The bees return to their hive in the evening where they are shut in and driven to a new field in the morning where they work that field until deemed sufficiently pollinated and the process repeated, often covering thousands of miles per season as crops ripen from the south to the north. Bees were fed doses of miticides and antibiotics to keep them healthy through the stresses of their lives on the road. The plants they were pollinating were also fed chemicals – fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and were themselves stressed in vast fields of monocultures. Somewhere along the line, modern man has gotten the idea that industrialization of food production was a good thing. I would argue that the industrialization of anything is a bad thing: Its only appeal is about producing profit only, a narrow way to define all lives. There are millions of things to do that don't involve profit that are more satisfying and less harmful to the environment.

In our modern world, many people have become so divorced from nature, the mere sight of a bee or a wasp (and the two are often confused) is cause for alarm. With this aura of fear, anything that flies and has a stinger is cause to haul out poison sprays or call in the exterminators. This fear of other life forms is mostly irrational and is one of the saddest phenomena of this era. We see it in 'anti-bacterial' soaps that proliferate in the marketplace and the fear of eating something directly from the garden.

(Note: Some folks truly are allergic to bees and this is not something to take lightly. In fact, every gardener should consult with his or her physician about the possibility of being allergic and if you find out you are, even if you only want to garden, there are anti-dotes that will allow you live until you can find medical attention and you should have that medication handy. Bees congregate in gardens and we want them to congregate in gardens! You can't garden without bees, so please, take good care of yourself and know that getting stung in a garden is as natural as getting dirt under your nails – if not as common.)

Honey bees are not the only pollinators, even if they are on the tip of everyone's tongue because of their precipitous decline. There are a host of solitary bees that help keep our crops pollinated and thriving. By not using fertilizers and pesticides, we go a long way towards making our garden much more a part of nature and less a part of the industrial world.

One of America's native bees is the Orchard Mason Bee. The name 'mason' is theirs because they lay their eggs in a hole and build a mud wall to protect the egg. When the egg hatches, the young bee must burrow through that mud wall to enter the world. But wait! There's more! The hole may be deep enough for the laying of five or six eggs. In that case, the last egg laid is the first egg out until the last egg out was the first egg laid! They hatch out in inverse order of being laid. It's something that boggles the mind, although there are many things in nature that boggle the mind.

Orchard Mason Bees and other North American species of insects pollinate a wide variety of plants and for them, we should avoid the use of poison in our gardens. They don't get the same amount of press as the non-native honey bee even though they deserve it. The honey bee makes honey and all in all is the most efficient pollinator we know of. But if we lose many more honey bees, we will have to rely more and more on the native American species of insects for the pollination of the food we eat. I'll bet we learn a lot more about the Orchard Mason Bee very soon.

In conclusion, plant flowers to feed the pollinators, allow at least a portion of your crop to flower for the pollinators and never spray insecticides except as a last resort after all else has failed. Insure these helpful life forms get the water they need (year round) to survive.

A fountain outside my office window where birds and insects come at different times to refresh themselves - some of the rocks are above the water level and are placed to be water free most of the time.

honey bees
Still on decline (although it is not as drastic) Honey bees are THE most important pollinators.
solitary species (i.e. bumblebees)
Declining Solitary bees, including a lot of Native North American bees have been as declining as honey bees.
pollen wasps
In decline
Declining Hoverflies are considered the 2nd most important food crop pollinator.
Butterflies and moths
In decline. All members of the genus Lepodopera are facing difficulty in survival. They are in precipitous decline.
Flower beetles

Vertebrates, mainly bats and birds, but also some non-bat mammals monkeys, like lemurs, possums, rodents) and some lizards pollinate certain plants. Among the pollinating birds are hummingbirds, honey eaters and birds with long beaks which pollinate a number of deep-throated flowers.


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