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Insects are hard workers, so protect your pollinators

Who and what are pollinators and why should you care? Bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, flies, and even a few beetles are pollinators and their hard work in our gardens provides food for our tables.

Who and what are pollinators and why should you care? Bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, flies, and even a few beetles are pollinators and their hard work in our gardens provides food for our tables.

Each of these kinds of insects contributes to pollination. Pollination is simply moving the pollen grains from the stamen (male part of the flower) to the stigma (female part of the flower) and when this happens fertilization takes place.

When fertilization happens, plants can produce fruits and seeds which are important foods for people and wildlife. Granted some flowers rely on the wind for pollination but there are many others that depend partially or completely on animals. In fact, more than 75 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals. In our area insects are the animals that do most of the pollinating. Everyone knows how important honeybees are for pollinating all kinds of crops.

Honeybees actually pollinate about 15 billion dollars worth of crops each year in the United States. That's a lot of pollinating but it's still only about 15 percent of the most common food crops. As important as honeybees are, it's the native insects that get the rest of the pollinating work done.

Busy bees

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Insects don't deliberately go around pollinating flowers. Honeybees, for example, move from flower to flower gathering pollen grains for protein and nectar for energy. As the pollen is gathered, some of it sticks to the hairs on a bee's back legs and from there it falls onto the stigma (female part) of the next flower. Some insects move pollen around incidentally while visiting flowers to look for a mate. Other insects transfer pollen grains when visiting flowers to gather food and nest-building materials.

Native bees such as bumblebees and solitary bees are very efficient pollinators and they were busy pollinating long before honeybees were imported form Europe by the early settlers. Actually there are about 4000 species of native bees in the United States. Most native bees don't live in hives but instead will build nests in the ground, in hollow logs, or holes in the ground. Bumble bees have a unique ability to warm up their muscles when the weather is cold in the spring; this allows them to get busy pollinating our early spring flowers when it's still too cool for honeybees to be out of their hives.

Pollinators in decline

This information about pollinators is important is because the status of many of our native pollinators is declining. In some cases their habitat is being destroyed and in other cases, improper use of pesticides is placing them in danger.

Gardeners who find it necessary to spray a pesticide should familiarize themselves with all of the potential consequences to our native pollinators and any honeybees in the vicinity. In many cases, simply waiting till your pollinators have quit foraging for the day, usually after sundown, will protect them from taking a direct pesticide hit.

There is no guarantee however, that residual pesticide won't harm them when they are back to gathering food the next day. A better course of action might be to look for an alternative means of pest control and consider using a pesticide as a last resort.

For starters, be willing to accept less than perfect appearing plants and produce. For example, if it's just a bit of insect munching on a plant's leaves, the damage is probably not worth getting excited about.

Try looking for an effective means of control that will eliminate the pest insects but won't harm the beneficial insects. "B T" (you can find it at your local landscape nursery) does a great job of controlling cabbage worms on your broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, and it's harmless to useful insects.

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Quite often, beneficial predator insects will come to your plants' defense but it may take some time for their numbers to build up so a little patience will be helpful. Ladybugs for example, are one of your greatest allies in controlling aphids. However if you spray to kill the aphids, you likely will kill your ladybugs.

The beautiful flowers in your garden have only one purpose and that is to attract their best friends, the insect pollinators; pollination ensures that reproduction of flowering plants will continue. So if you enjoy the look and fragrance of your flowers, along with eating garden fresh cantaloupes, tomatoes, apples, or other fruits from your backyard, remember to protect your pollinating insects.

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