Nuture the pollinators

04/28/2011 12:00 AM

11/15/2011 11:34 AM

Can you spare a dime?

For bees, a weedless lawn is as bleak as a walk through a closely planted pine plantation is for us. There are but few plants and animals to be seen. Unless you are planning to cut the whole place down and take a trip to Tuscany, it doesn’t do much to lift your soul.

The web of life means hundreds, thousands, millions of connections. One of the most important to man, and one we’ve nurtured the least, is the role of pollinators in our lives. As many as 90 percent of plant species and 30 percent of the food we eat can only flower, set fruit with seeds, and reproduce if outside agents move pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers.

Sometimes this has to happen within the same flower, as when a honeybee latches onto a tomato blossom, buzzes the dickens out of it, and causes a shower of pollen to be released, drenching both the bee and the waiting female pistil with that fertilizing compound.

In other cases, plants are completely and totally one way or the other. Cucumber, squash, and watermelons plants come male or female. Pollinators must make many visits back and forth between the sexes to ensure that complete fertilization takes place. Tiny ovules, when fertilized, develop into large seeds, filling out the vegetable. A crooked cucumber is one where the bees did an incomplete job.

We’ve relied on imported (over 400 years ago so they do qualify for most genealogical societies) European honeybees to perform most of these not unpleasant tasks for us, but a combination of environmental factors has put those fellows in a decline. Fortunately, researchers are studying colony collapse but also reminding us that we can make small changes in our gardening and landscaping habits that will attract and nourish other pollinators who live in the wild.

Bumble bees, sweat bees, ground bees, wasps, even certain flies make most of their living visiting flowers to collect nectar and pollen. Although non-European in heritage, they share the continental tolerance of unshaven legs, which makes them highly effective pollinators.

A few, such as the trichogramma wasp, have special needs and can only drink from certain flowers (tiny tongues, tiny flowers). But many are generalists, and happily dine on whatever appears on the table. What they can’t do is wait for a crop to flower; they must be encouraged to stay in the vicinity by a constant supply of food.

If you can give up a square yard of lawn and plant it with zinnas, coneflowers, dill, and salvia, among many others, you can attract and retain beneficial insects. Or clear out a little space among your shrubbery and group colorful annuals or perennials there. Let your pots filled with coleus go to flower. Members of the Compositacea, or aster family, have centers packed with individual flowers, each and every one of which can be worked by the specialized tongue of a visitor. Choose flowers that aren’t doubled as single blossoms offer more food. Pollinator Protectors (search NAPPC) lists plants proven to be the best for this task, organizing them for specific regions of the country.

Be sure to keep fresh water in a container with sloping sides (or a stick in it so insects who fall in can climb out). Then if you can have one small area of soil left cleared for ground nesting bees, you’ll be the proprietor of a four-star hotel devoted to procreation.

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