Let’s Celebrate Pollinators

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener June 21 through the 27th is a week devoted to celebrating our pollinators. Often, we think that the honey bees out there do all the work. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) three quarters of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce. “Some scientists, according to NRCS estimate that one out of three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, beetles, and other insects”. Without these pollinators our food choices would be slim and we would no longer be able to bite into a juicy peach, savor that first ripe tomato or gasp, have chocolate. We must protect these treasures to ensure we have access to good and nutritious food.
Did you know a world without pollinators would be a world without apples, blueberries, strawberries, chocolate, almonds, melons, peaches, pumpkins and edible gourds? This Eastern Black Swallowtail is a common pollinator in our gardens. Take a walk and see how many pollinators you can see working for you. Some pollinators have traits that make them specialized. For example, the bumble bee does what is called buzz pollination. This is needed by plants such as tomatoes, eggplants and blueberries to name a few. Speaking of chocolate, the chocolate midge, a small fly, is the only pollinator of the cacao plant. The cacao flowers are very small, about 3/8”, and their reproductive parts even smaller according to The Conversation. The anther is covered by a hood and the female pistil is caged in by five staminodes which are sterile stamens. To further complicate the process, the flowers only last a day or two. Naturally chocolate midges are found in dense, shady rain forests. Nowadays, most cacao is grown on open plantations and the midges do not like the open sunny area so only three out of 1000 flowers are pollinated. Hand pollination is used sometimes but it is tediously painstaking work. Do I need to say more to convince you that these pollinators and their habitats serve a vital role in our lives? What are some of the things that you can do in your own garden to help pollinators? Provide the four basic things needed for any habitat – food, water, shelter and a place to raise young. For food, provide plants that serve each of the pollinator types such as bee balm for hummingbirds, wide open flowers like magnolia for beetles and night blooming plants for bats. For butterflies, it is important to plant larval plants such as milkweeds for Monarchs. These are the plants where the butterfly lays her eggs and the larva consume once they hatch. Take into consideration how the pollinator views plants. For example, most bees cannot see red. Coneflower is a good pollinator plant but if you select a red colored cultivar, the bee won’t be able to see it. If you visit the Pollinator Partnership at pollinator.org on the internet, you’ll be able to download an Ecoregional Planting Guide, as well as other resources about pollinators. Most importantly, reduce your use of pesticides or better yet, eliminate them all together. Provide bird houses and solitary bee nesting boxes. Reduce the size of your lawn and create landscape beds using mostly native plants. Herbs are also good pollinator plants because most of them have small flowers. Plan to have something blooming during the entire growing season and provide a diversity of plants. Eliminate invasive alien plants from your garden. Birdbaths are common garden elements but also provide a shallow dish with semi-submerged stones so thirsty insects can rest and safely drink. Work with nature, not against it. I have a story to share about the butterfly photo that accompanies this article. On a recent Saturday, the VCE Southside Master Gardener Association provided a Make and Take Fairy Garden for youth at the Halifax Farmers Market. One of our new trainees had bought some curly parsley at the market last month. There was a tiny caterpillar on one of the plants. Tammy had taken a large plastic jar and placed the parsley plants and caterpillar inside and covered with a piece of screen. The caterpillar spun its chrysalis and Tammy brought the container so we could all see. While we were there, the Eastern black swallowtail emerged. It had to rest a few hours on the stem to allow its wings to dry. Slowly the wings emerged larger than at first. Tammy said that when it flew away and rested on a flower, she was able to identify it as a female because of the bright blue between the rows of spots. It was a magical moment and the adults enjoyed it as much as the kids. The VCE Halifax Extension Office is now open. Masks and social distancing are required. If the door is locked, please knock. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu. If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Make sure to get your vaccination and make your garden a pollinator paradise.