You may have heard the expression “No farmers, No food.” How about this one: “No bees, No food.” Bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles and many other native insects are essential for food production. Without pollen distribution and cross-fertilization by pollinators, much of our food supply would vanish.
The week of June 20-26 has been designated National Pollinator Week by the U.S Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior. It is a time to celebrate pollinators and take steps to ensure their survival.
What do pollinators do? They cross-pollinate, transferring pollen from the male anthers of a flower to the female stigma of a flower on a different individual plant of the same species.
For some plants – such as conifers, oak trees, allergy-causing weeds like ragweed, and grasses, including corn – the wind is sufficient to propel pollen grains between plants and ensure pollination. But most plants grown for their fruits, seeds, nuts and fiber require insect pollination, as do many native flowering plants.
Pollen grains stick to the legs, wings and bodies of insect pollinators and are brushed onto other flowers as insects make their rounds. This results in fertilization within plant ovaries and the production of seeds. Without fertilization, seeds and the delicious fruits that encase them – everything from apples to tomatoes to watermelon – will not form.
While honeybees are the best known pollinators, they are not native … they are transplants from Europe. But this state we’re in has many native pollinators that not only help farmers grow crops, but also keep our natural ecosystems in balance.
In New Jersey, native pollinators include bumblebees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees and squash bees, as well as wasps. Many of our colorful butterflies are pollinators, including monarchs, tiger swallowtails, painted ladies, fiery skippers, orange sulfurs, common buckeyes and our newly designated state butterfly, the black swallowtail.
Dozens of moths – including underwings, owlet, geometer, sphinx and hummingbird moths – are pollinators. Ruby-throated hummingbirds carry pollen from flower to flower, the only New Jersey bird pollinator. Hundreds of species of beetles and flies also pollinate our flowers and plants.
What can you do to help our native pollinators?
First, feed them by adding native plants to your yard and garden. The bees that buzz from flower to flower to collect protein-rich pollen burn a lot of energy. Native plants provide sweet nectar and will attract bees and other pollinators, providing them with lots of energy.
Garden State native plants that are good at attracting pollinators include beebalm, butterfly weed, blueberry, blue wild indigo, cardinal flower, mountain mint, ironweed, milkweed, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed, New England aster, blazing star, echinacea, phlox, golden ragwort, sumac, sweet pepper-bush and viburnum.
Second, avoid chemical pesticides. Bee communities, both wild and domestic, have experienced severe declines recently as pesticide use has increased. Especially harmful to pollinators are a group of pest control chemicals called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short.
Some chemical manufactures like Ortho are voluntarily dropping neonics. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently assessing the impact of neonics on bees.
But don’t wait for the results of the EPA study; celebrate National Pollinator Week by planting native plants and keeping your yard and garden chemical-free. Our native pollinators will thank you for it … and so will gardeners, farmers and consumers.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.