It’s Pollinator Week! A whole week designed to support pollinator health, managed by Pollinator Partnership. This year’s emphasis is on the connections between climate and pollinators.
I recently completed Pollinator Steward Certification through Pollinator Partnership. I had mentioned this organization in my first blog post about pollinators. If you haven’t read that yet, it’s a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems. You can visit their website at Pollinator.org. I’ll be sharing some of what I learned in this week’s posts.
This first post will touch on who the pollinators are and they challenges they are facing.
Who Are the Pollinators?
A pollinator is any creature that moves pollen! Flowers cannot move in order to reproduce, so they rely on pollinators. The wind also helps to pollinate flowers, but when it comes to living pollinators, this is a broad category that includes some things you might not have thought about before. Would you think that a lizard is a potential pollinator? It might be! Mammals can be, too, in addition to the things we usually think of – flies, moths, birds (especially hummingbirds), butterflies, bees, and other insects like ants and beetles. Did you know that beetles help to pollinate strawberries? Or that hummingbirds can see the color red, but bees cannot?
Some of these pollinators are generalists – meaning they visit many different species of plants – while others are specialists and rely on only a few specific plants.
Fly vs Bee vs Wasp
There are many flies and moths that mimic wasps and bees. When trying to tell the difference, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Flies have two wings and usually have very large eyes.
- Bees and wasps have four wings.
- Bees tend to have hairs on their bodies, while wasps usually don’t. Only female bees have the pollen-carrying hairs on their legs to carry the pollen home to their young.
- Wasps tend to have thin hind legs, while bees’ hind legs are often thicker.
Check out this Bee Identification Guide that Pollinator Partnership put together.
Let’s talk about bees, since bees and butterflies are what many people think of when they think “pollinators.” Of the top 100 food crops produced, bees interact with the largest proportion. However, there are also flies, beetles, wasps, and moths at work. The interactions are similar for flowering plants – bees are doing the most.
There are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide and over 4,000 species native to North America. You may have 40-50 different species in your yard!
Most native solitary bees emerge for the first time in their life in spring. They were just laid as eggs last year! These new adults then look for a mate. Males drink nectar and seek mates, then females who have mated collect pollen and lay eggs. After a few weeks, these adults will have died off. We only see the adults for about 4-6 weeks each year! Different species emerge at different times in the spring, so we see a variety of bees all season long.
For most bees, if they have a stinger (only maybe half of them do!), it is so small that it can’t even penetrate human skin! They’re vegetarians who care much more about the flowers that can provide them with pollen and nectar than about you. Learn more from this No Fear of Stings brochure.
Did you know that honey bees are not native to North America? They were brought here for honey production in the 1600s. Now that they’re here, they are managed by humans and, though they are not native, they are important for agriculture. There are not enough native bees to pollinate all the crops that we rely on.
Contrary to what you might often hear, honey bees, as a species, are not in decline – colonies are actually increasing. They are, however, hard to keep healthy (poor stock; not enough forage; pests and disease; insecticides; climate change) and there is a lot of loss every winter.
A honey bee colony can’t survive if it’s just given access to one crop to pollinate. All bees need food throughout the season to survive and thrive. Like any living creature, a honey bee needs a balanced diet – a variety of pollen sources – which can be difficult to find in a farm environment focused on large-scale production of only a few plants.
By the way, honey bees — which live in colonies and have a “home” to defend — actually have barbed stingers!
Threats to Bees
Native bees ARE in decline. Similar to honey bees, they are facing pressures from habitat loss; pests and disease; insecticides; and climate change. Honeybees can be a source of competition for native bee species. Honeybees tend to travel farther from home for food, while native bees stay close to home. The honey bees can change the floral community through preferential pollination. This means they can cause certain flowering plants to be pollinated more often than the species that a specialist native bee might rely on. Over time, this could result in less food for the natives.
In the spring, bees emerge based on the air temperature, and they need flowers to be in bloom when they wake up. Often, a flower’s bloom time is in response to day length. Climate change has increased the gap between the times when bees wake up and when flowers bloom – the air is warmer when the days are still short, resulting in less food available when bees emerge. Bumblebees are just one example: their habitat extent has gotten smaller as temperatures have increased.
Pests and Pesticides
In addition to temperature swings, pollinators are also affected by pests like mites, bacteria, viruses, and fungi. On top of this, they can be impacted by pesticides, even if they are not sprayed or applied directly to the insects. One of the more widely known, neonicotinoids (or “neonics”), ends up being mostly absorbed into the soil, where many native bees nest. Pesticides can have a wide range of impacts beyond initially killing insects– from confusing the bees, to affecting their ability to find food and to reproduce, to increasing their susceptibility to getting sick. If the bees can’t find their way home with food, the colony suffers.
How You Can Help
I promise it’s not all doom and gloom! While pollinators are facing challenges, there are things that their human friends can do to help them out. In the next post, we’ll talk about ways to support pollinators — including gardens and habitat creation.