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Pollinator Blues - Part I

Karl Foord, UMN Extension Educator

The Native Wild Pollinator's Perspective

Photo 1: Bumblebee on Cosmos. Karl Foord.
Most everything we do cuts into their territory. We make roads, houses, cities, and factories. We plant grass athletic fields, home owner lawns, double flower sterile plants, and we plant large agricultural fields of corn and beans all of which are in essence deserts for them. We use insecticides targeted for other critters and sometimes damage them in the process. We even mulch our gardens making it difficult for them to find ground based nesting sites. I can hear them singing the Jim Croce song 'Car Wash Blues' and changing some of the lyrics. "I got them steadily depressing low down mind messing 'I can't find no pollen' blues".

Short History of Insect Pollinators

Most animals and birds depend on flowering plants for food or shelter. Most plants depend on pollinators to complete their reproduction cycles. This makes pollinators key players in the ecosystem. It should be emphasized that the flowering plant pollinator relationship is kf2.jpg
Photo 2:Bumblebee on Golden Rod. Karl Foord.
one of long standing. Insects were around long before flowering plants. The oldest insect fossils date back to the Carboniferous (360 - 300 million years ago) and exhibit wings and other advanced features which suggests millions of years of evolution before the Carboniferous. There is still discussion about the timing of the origin of flowering plants. The ancestors of flowering plants diverged from gymnosperms in the early Triassic (245-202 million years ago), and fossils of flowering plants are dated to the early Cretaceous (145 - 65 million years ago). Flowering plants diversified during this time and became the dominant plant form in the late Cretaceous (100 - 65 million years ago). Suffice it to say that flowering plants and insects have been interacting intimately for at least 100 million years and have become quite codependent. So pollination is central to the life cycle of flowering plants and more than 80% of plant species rely on animal pollinators and 99% of those pollinators are insects.
Photo 3: Bumblebee on Golden Rod. Karl Foord.

The Pollinator-phile's Perspective

Pollinators are needed for the successful production of as much as 25% of everything we eat and drink, and we are rapidly depleting their habitats. Granted much of this pollination is done by the non-native honeybee. But as we shall see in next month's article by Marla Spivak these pollinators are facing their own set of problems. We need these native pollinators if for no other reason than help pollinate some of our important crop species as the honeybees face challenges. We are finding that bumble bees are much better pollinators of tomatoes in greenhouse and high tunnel settings than honeybees. This is true for many crops if you remember the pumpkin and its specifically adapted pollinators mentioned in the last issue.

All things considered I would like to join the ranks of the native pollinator friendly assembly,kf4.jpg
Photo 4: Bumblebee on Golden Rod. Karl Foord.
but what is one to do? Before becoming an advocate I would like to explore what I could do on my own without having to persuade some government entity that they should create pollinator plant refuges on the highway right of ways. This requires some consideration. The native pollinators are adapted to native plants but will glean pollen and nectar from cultivated species. All of our cultivated plants were adapted from wild ancestors. This leads me to consider two steps. First, take an inventory of the plants I those closely adjoined to my property, and access how pollinator friendly my homestead might be. Second, consider the array of pollinator friendly species and see what might fit within the existing landscape. I will address each in turn.

As far as the home inventory is concerned, I love dwarf evergreens so nothing there for the pollinators. But I have apples strawberries willows as well as significant patches of sedum and thyme. There is a buffer area on my property that is undeveloped and features phlox in kf5.jpg
Photo 5: Bumblebee. Karl Foord.
the spring and goldenrod in the fall. An adjoining school grassy area is mowed but does not control any weeds so the dandelions do quite well. I have some other plants but I will need to consider when they flower and how many there are to determine their impact.

As to plants attractive to native pollinators, I looked at lists of the plants and found I had my work cut out for me. When do they flower and for how long? What are their growing requirements and will they be bullies or gentlepersons in their interaction with the other plants in the landscape. So my next assignment is to work on this and see if the plant lists can be assembled in a way that the information can be applied to anyone's landscape; this for next time. In the meanwhile please enjoy some pictures of bumble bees showing their long tongues, choice of pretty flowers, and flying capabilities.