A honey bee, shown here at the middle of the frame, pollinates a flower.
Every once in a while a grandfather has to discuss life with his grandsons. Yes, we need to discuss the birds and the bees. And I do mean the birds and the bees. Especially the bees.
There is a great concern about the loss of pollinating insects like the honey bee and its effect on agriculture. Our area of the country is not as critical as the midwest. Their loss of local plant diversity, pesticide overuse, drainage of potholes, vernal pools and wetlands, along with habitat loss are all culprits.
In the midwest the farm fields consist of hundreds and hundreds of acres of the same crop broken up only by a road pattern based on the survey system of sections. A section is a square of 640 acres, or one mile by one mile. There could be one field of 640 acres of corn, divided by a road, and then another 640 acres of corn, creating a checkerboard affect on the fairly flat prairie ground when viewed out a plane window at 20,000 feet. Because the soil is so fertile, the land is farmed from fence row to fence row and roadway to roadway.
Our part of the country uses a meets and bounds survey, where the land was broken up by measurements to the center of streams, to a large tree or whatever, to create a boundary in the rolling forested hill and mountain country. That’s why our property lines meander all over the place and are not square like out west. We also have more water and streams so they were easy to set as boundaries way back. Many town, county or state boundaries are based on streams or rivers.
Anyway, let’s get back to the birds and bees!
We need to remember our food comes from plants that flower and get pollinated by the bees, butterflies, and other insects. Ninety percent of the flowering plants and one third of the human crop foods need animal pollinators for their reproduction.
Apples, raspberries, onions, celery, beets, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, alfalfa, watermelons, tangerines, almonds, elderberries, blueberries, grapes, squash, cantaloupe, strawberries, and tomatoes all need pollinators along with a long list of other plants.
Pollination technically is: “the process by which pollen is transferred in the reproduction of plants, thereby enabling fertilization and sexual reproduction,” according to Wikipedia. Pollen grains containing male gametes (sperm) which get transported to the stigma, which is part of a double fertilization process, which I am not going into. You get the drift!
There are two types of pollination; abiotic and biotic.
Abiotic pollination is by the wind. Ten percent of the flowering plants get pollinated by wind.
Ninety percent of the work is left to other animals through biotic pollination. Pollinators like the honey bee, bumblebee, butterfly, hummingbird, dung fly, wasp, midges, beetles, spiders and ants all make it possible for us to survive on this planet. The superstars of pollination are the honey bee and bumblebee. These two are the beasts of burden or the “A” team of pollen transfer in our area.
So what can you do to improve the habitat for the “A” team?
The greatest thing you can do is have a variety of flowering trees, shrubs and flowers around your property to provide food for the bees throughout the growing season.
By having flowering plants that bloom throughout the season, you are providing food for the pollinators. Remember bees need to store food away in their hives so they make it through the winter.
Plants for nectar, which I was told by a knowledgeable Wadhams, NY area bee keeper include: white sweet clover, white clover, alsike clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, basswood trees, red maples, willows, box elders, black locust, honeysuckle, raspberries, goldenrod, asters, trefoil, and many others. Make sure you have a variety of plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons to insure a long lasting food supply.
The second “A” team helper is having a source of water nearby, like a vernal pool, an open pond or wetland with a shallow water beach like area. Here the pollinators can easily get a drink. I can hear it now; he wants me to create a bee, beach area. Habitat is mainly about food, water and then shelter.
Shelter can be dead standing trees, exposed dry sandy dirt banks, and non-mowed areas. You can manage your land by creating habitat in hedge rows. Harvesting the non-flowering and non- mast trees for firewood and planting wild apple or other flowering trees and shrubs in their place will provide pollen for the bees. Releasing apple trees and having openings in the woods provide habitat, along with leaving a few standing dead trees for nests.
Thinning out wetland and riparian stream bank areas allows sun light so a diversity of plants can grow.
You need a mix of grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees. Leaving some standing grassy and shrubby areas provides shelter for bees and other pollinators. So park the mower and leave a strip of clovers, birds foot trefoil, dandelions, and other wildflowers along the road, driveway, or along sunny woods edges to provide food and cover for wildlife. More than just pollinators will benefit from doing this.
Reducing the use of bee and wasp sprays and insecticides around the garden and home will also allow populations to thrive. Nobody wants to get stung by a wasp, but they have a purpose so try and keep some around.
Who cares, you ask? With the growing demand toward local foods, and less foreign imports of fruits and vegetables you need to care. Homeland security is being independent on all fronts; fuel, food, fiber, manufacturing, etc. The US farm economy not only feeds our population, but it also helps feed other nations as well. Keeping our agronomic potential high and environmentally sound is vital to our well-being as a country.
Pollinators supply the ability for plants to reproduce. No reproduction equals no food! So this is not just about the birds and the bees, it’s about our own survival as well. So plant a diversity of flowers, trees and shrubs, and manage your land.
If you want to learn more about pollinators and what plants bloom throughout the season, check out this website: www.xerces.org.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.