What are pollinators? What do they do?

Pollinators are keystone species essential to food production on the Earth. Pollinators are animals – bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, birds, bats – that feed on nectar and carry pollen trapped on their hairy bodies between male and female parts of plants of the same species so that seed fertilization can take place.  75% of the world’s food plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.  Fruits and berries (apples, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries), nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkins, almonds, buckwheat), and vegetables (peppers, squash, tomatoes, potatoes) all cannot reproduce without animal pollinators.

Why do we need to protect pollinators?

Worldwide, pollinators are being killed by pesticides and by invasive species of plants and animals and new parasites and diseases.  Their nesting and foraging habitats are destroyed when land is cleared for development, when walkways and road embankments are paved, when hedges and dead trees are removed, when mulch is used.  When hayfields are harvested as soon as they bloom and when lawns are manicured to remove dandelions, pollinator food supplies –pollens and nectars – disappear.  And, when pollinators are starved and endangered, food production for human survival on the planet is at risk.  Every one of us can help avert disaster by planting native wildflowers, shrubs and trees that produce nectars and pollens to feed pollinators.

How to create pollinator preserves wherever we live:

In even the smallest spaces in your garden or in windowboxes and pots on balconies in even the most urban settings we can create pollinator preserves — resource-rich insecticide-free zones – by planting a variety of nectar-rich and/or pollen-rich plants.  Even doing nothing — preserving hedges, not raking leaves in the fall, leaving low ground for puddles and moist spaces– is important to pollinator conservation because these offer foraging and nesting habitats.

Key elements of pollinator preserves are:

Shrubs:  Keep a variety of native or heirloom variety shrubs such as serviceberry, elderberry and sumac with different blooming periods to attract bees and other pollinators throughout the growing season.

Trees:  Plant trees!  Alders and red maples produce early supplies of pollen.  Basswoods provide nectar in summer.  Balsam poplar produces resins that some species of pollinators use to build their nests.

Flowers:  Bees and other pollinators especially like purple, yellow, white and blue flowers.  Plant asters, columbine, cosmos, evening primrose, sunflowers, hyssop, fireweed, honeysuckle, crabapple.

Herbs:  Plant herbs.  Pollinators LOVE aromatics herbs – thyme, chives, sage, comfrey, oregano, borage — that all produce lots of nectar.  A condo balcony herb garden can be a pollinator haven.

Weeds:  Sweet clover, golden rod, cow vetch and other weeds – are all outstanding sources of nectar and/or pollen.  Leave some areas “wild” for these weeds.

Lawns: Plant wildflowers instead of grass.  Eliminate mowing and pesticide use.

Leave dandelions during the early spring as a food source to help pollinators start the season off when there are few other food sources available.  Leave patches of leaves on the ground in the fall for nesting sites.

Nesting Areas:  Create nesting areas or structures or keep dead trees and branches for pollinators to raise their young.

We can also work to maintain the amazing diversity of pollinators.  Honeybees  (introduced from Europe) may be the pollinators most of us think of but there are over 400 species of wild bees in Quebec, 300 of which are important pollinators.  Most are solitary, do not live in colonies and do not make honey.  More than 50 North American bird species feed on plant nectar and blossoms, especially hummingbirds and orioles.  Worldwide, there are 400,000 species of beetles and 170, 000 species of butterflies that are active pollinators.  Many pollinators are specialist foragers that collect pollen only from certain plant species.   Native to Quebec, for example, sumac, squash/pumpkin, thistles, lambs ears, evening primrose each attract a different species of bee.  Keeping “islands” of plant species that attract specialist pollinators helps to maintain biodiversity.

Pollinator-watching, like bird-watching, is a unique opportunity to connect with nature.  Look, and you will find, pollinators hard at work in the weeds of abandoned urban lots, at the edges of sidewalks, along road embankments.  They are transporting pollens to help feed the world.  By planting and preserving nectar-producing flowering plants, trees, shrubs and hedges we, too, can do our part to help feed the pollinators who feed us.  The mature trees and wetlands and the shrubs and weeds along the train embankments of Meadowbrook are habitat havens feeding and sheltering an incredible diversity of pollinating birds and insects on the island of Montreal.

photo: agpollinators.org

  • by Sally Cole



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