You might not immediately see the connection between birds and bugs and clean water, but it’s a connection that is growing every year—literally! Pollinators are crucial to the food web and native plants are the lynchpin of that web. Native plants provide the food and habitat pollinators need to do their job carrying pollen from flower to flower and back to the nest to raise young. And without the pollination of flowers, plants would not be able to produce fruits and vegetables, and they would also not be able to reproduce themselves.
While the native plants are busy providing food and habitat for pollinators, they're also working hard to capture, clean, and store rain water in their leaves, stems, trunks, branches, and roots. The result is less stormwater hitting the streets, where it would otherwise pick up pollutants and carry it straight to streams, lakes, or rivers. Less stormwater runoff also results in a recharge of groundwater storage which supplies water to wells. So, the next time you take a drink of water, thank a bee or a hoverfly or a beetle or a hummingbird…even a bat or a spider for a job well done!
Why is pollination important?
Pollinators are critical to today’s agricultural success. And agricultural success doesn’t just mean a lot of corn and soybeans. Imagine a world with 320,000 fewer species of crops. It would be a lot different! Many of the foods you enjoy on a daily basis wouldn’t be around. In fact, more than a third of crops worldwide rely on pollination—foods like honey, berries, apples, and peaches. Products like beeswax candles and lip balm also need pollinators to do their jobs.
A number of crops are dependent on a single species of pollinator. Should that pollinator disappear, that’s the end of that crop—and vice versa. Here are a few examples:
- Chocolate - If it weren’t for two families of midges (a small, two-winged fly often referred to as no-see-ums) pollinating the tiny white flower of the cacao tree, there wouldn’t be any chocolate.
- Tequila - The agave plant, which is used to make tequila, is pollinated exclusively by bats.
- Almonds - Almonds depend entirely on honey bee pollination for their production. California uses more than 1 million colonies of honey bees each year just to pollinate the state’s almond crop!
- Milkweed – While it’s not a crop, you might not even think of milkweed as an important plant, maybe more of a weed. But it is vital to the survival of one of our most beautiful butterflies, the Monarch. Monarch butterflies have one of the most inspiring stories in the natural world, taking several generations to complete a migration route that takes them from wintering grounds in Mexico and California through a range that extends across most of North America and back. Pretty impressive for an insect that only lives for a couple of weeks. It’s even more impressive when you consider that they do it all using a single genus of plant—the milkweed—in their reproductive process. The dramatic loss of milkweed habitat has already taken a serious toll on the monarch population.
Who are the pollinators?
A pollinator is any insect or animal that moves pollen from the reproductive parts of one plant to the reproductive parts of another plant. Pollen is collected on an insect’s body while it is feeding on the flower or plant. When the insect travels to a different flower or plant, pollen from the first plant is transferred to the new plant. As the insect or animal continues to move, touching other flowers, it trades pollen with them as it goes. The flower then uses the pollen to produce a fruit or seed.
As you will see, many insects, birds, and mammals act as pollinators. And while honey bees might be the best known pollinator, it is actually our native bees that are the most efficient and prolific at the job.
Bees are probably the most well-known and best of all the pollinators. Honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, sweat bees…the list goes on. The best pollinators by far are our native bees, and there are over 4,000 species of them! This includes mason bees, leaf cutter bees, digger bees, bumble bees, and more. How efficient are these native bees? Just 300 orchard mason bees, Osmia lignaria, can do the same job as 90,000 honey bees! Honey bees are not native to the United States, but they continue to be used widely in agricultural production.
Yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps--the insects most often confused with bees--also do a little pollinating work. However, they aren’t very efficient at it, because they aren’t fuzzy like bees.
You may be happy to learn that not all bees can sting, and many of those that can are reluctant to do so. Check out this handy guide to learn the difference. The more comfortable you are having them around, the more we can help them survive.
Butterflies are another well-known pollinator, though they aren’t all that efficient at it because of their body structure. When a butterfly lands on a flower, it has very little contact with the pollen because of its long, thin legs. Butterflies also typically land on the side of flowers and use their long proboscis (tongues) to probe for nectar instead of crawling down into the flower like some other insects do. Butterflies are very active, however, and visit many brightly-colored flowers during the day.
Moths are relatives of butterflies and also participate in pollination. Because moths are nocturnal, they tend to do their work at night, visiting mostly white, fragrant flowers.
Believe it or not, birds are key to the pollination of many wildflower species throughout the world, as well as a few food crops, like bananas, in tropical regions. Over 2000 species are associated with pollination activities. In the United States, the hummingbird is vital to wildflower pollination. A healthy wildflower population is crucial to a healthy ecosystem—the whole of life working together—and that includes aspects of agricultural production.
While the large majority of bats in the United States eat insects, some species from desert and tropical climates are pollinators. Bats are the major or exclusive pollinator for over 500 plant species and at least 67 plant families. Without bats we wouldn’t have tequila, mangoes, or guavas.
Hover Flies and some other guys
Many other insects and animals are top-notch pollinators, too. For instance, the hover fly (also known as a flower fly) is one of the most efficient pollinators out there. Hover flies are hard workers in orchards – pollinating fruit crops such as apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, and raspberries to name a few. They look like sweat bees with their black and yellow stripes, but they are flies and do not possess a stinger. You can tell the difference by the way they hover in place—bees can’t do that!
And don’t forget about beetles! Beetles were among the first pollinators and continue to pollinate plants today. When a beetle visits a flower it usually isn’t there to sip on nectar, but instead chews and eats parts of the plants it pollinates. Finally, you might also see spiders, ants, mosquitos, even lizards carrying pollen.
Threats to pollinators
There are a variety of causes to the decline in pollinator populations. By and large, these causes are the consequences of human activity, and today we have a clear idea of what we need to do in order to reverse these effects.
So what are the biggest threats to our pollinators?
Pests and Disease
The Varrona mite might be the biggest threat of all to honey bees. This parasitic arthropod infests bee colonies and is the main cause of colony collapse today. But the parasitizing itself is only part of the problem. Varrona mites play a role in most of the 20 viruses known to infect honey bees, and these diseases have ravaged bee populations in recent years. Varrona mites were introduced from Europe accidentally as part of the commercial honey bee trade and can now be found almost everywhere. Viruses are a normal part of colony life and only become a problem when the colony is stressed. Our job is to reduce those stressors.
Pesticides and other household chemicals
More and more studies are published every year that point to the danger that pesticides pose to pollinators. One class in particular is having the biggest impact—the neonicotinoids, which are highly toxic at even low doses. If you must use pesticides, avoid this class of chemicals. Look for the Bee Advisory label when selecting a pesticide, and use this guide to avoid the most harmful types.
Pesticides are not the only chemicals that may be having a harmful effect on pollinators. Many of the household treatments we use every day—things like mosquito deterrents and common garden chemicals—build up in colonies. It’s currently unclear what effect this may have on bees and other pollinators, because the interactions are complex and require further study. Before we reach a crisis, consider reducing or eliminating your use of these chemicals until we know more about how they are impacting pollinator populations.
Imagine needing food, but the only grocery store is in another town. Or you’re trying to build a house when there’s no lumber around. As we build more neighborhoods, shopping centers, parking lots, and offices, we are replacing pollinator habitat—all the things required for survival—with sterile grass, asphalt, concrete, and other human-made structures. If we want to keep what we have, then we need to put the habitat back into our landscapes.
Forage and habitat
Pollinators will feed on almost any type of flower—or forage—but there are certain plants on which they thrive. If you want to protect pollinators and support them to your yard or garden, then there are a few species that are important to include in your garden. A number of annuals and garden staples—plants like borage, zinnias, and crimson clover—are well-known bee favorites, but we recommend using native perennial plants as much as possible. Why? Not only do they support pollinators and other fauna, but they also help clean our water and direct it into soils and below ground aquifers, helping to restore the natural water cycle!
Need a list of the best native plants for pollinators? Here are two lists, one is from Michigan State University Extension and the other is from The Xeres Society. If you would like to see a sample planting plan using some of our favorite native plants, click here.
There are also many trees and shrubs that support pollinators. Maples, honey locusts, serviceberries, redbuds, dogwoods, and viburnums are all good choices. Check out this guide for more options.
What else can you do to protect pollinators? If using native plants isn’t in your immediate future, consider leaving a portion of your property unmown or restrict mowing to early morning or evening when pollinators are least active. This allows bees to use some of the forage that may naturally occur in your yard or fields, plants like clover and dandelions. If you’re willing to stop treating your lawn, you will help make an even bigger difference, since lawn treatments include chemicals that have an impact on pollinators.
Using valuable native plants isn’t the only way to support pollinators. Roughly 70% of native bees nest in the ground. Some build burrows into well-drained, bare, or partially vegetated soil. Other nest in abandoned beetle houses or in soft-centered, hollow twigs and plant stems. Bees will also colonize in dead trees and branches. If you have an underutilized area on your property, consider creating this kind of environment and see if the bees come!
A key element of quality habitat which is often overlooked is access to water. Consider keeping a small dish of water available near your nectar sources. Be sure to dump out the contents and refill with fresh water on a daily basis in order to prevent diseases from spreading and mosquitos from breeding.