Pollinators are needed to keep the world green

By SCOTT SHALAWAY

Every year, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture designates a week in June as National Pollinator Week. The effort is intended to draw attention to the invaluable services provided by bees, beetles, butterflies, flies, birds and other pollinators.

Plants reproduce when pollen (sperm) from male flower parts (anthers) reaches the pistil (site of egg production). After fertilization, seeds are formed and ultimately dispersed.

Grasses, including corn and many other grain crops, are pollinated by the wind, but about 75 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by more than 200,000 species of animals.

When bees and other pollinators visit flowers for nectar, they pick up pollen and move it along to other flowers as they forage. Without the service of pollinators, these plants would vanish.

Value of pollinators

This is more than just a feel-good ecological tale. About one-third of the foods and beverages we consume are pollinated by animals. Coffee, melons, squash, peaches, apples, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds, blueberries and chocolate are just a few of these crops. The value of animal pollinators is estimated to be about $20 billion annually.

Despite the importance of pollinators, many face population declines. Bumble bee and honeybee numbers have been declining for years, and monarch butterfly populations appear to be at an all time low due to genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans.

These crops are made genetically immune to herbicides, which kill any “weeds” that encroach on crop fields. As a result, where GM foods are grown, monarchs disappear because there’s no milkweed upon which to lay their eggs.

Confusing

It boggles my mind the USDA promotes pollinator week, yet inexplicably permits the use of genetically modified crops. I’m sure any ecologist would argue destroying native plant communities in farm country is bad land management. That’s because as native plants disappear, so do native pollinators. And birds and other vertebrates that eat the pollinators suffer population declines as well.

What to do

Meanwhile, there are a few things everyone can do.

1. Plant a pollinator garden devoted to native species.

2. Convert large corporate grounds into meadows of native wildflowers. This is an easy sell because it minimizes the expense of maintaining well-manicured grounds.

3. Spread the word about pollinators at public meetings where land management decisions are made.

For example, the new Cameron High School near where I live will receive an award as a 2014 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School. Its most conspicuous outdoor feature is the colorful wildflower meadow that covers the hill in front of the building. There’s no need to mow the area, and it teems with butterflies and other pollinators.

4. Provide nesting sites for cavity-nesting bees. Of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America, about 30 percent nest in old beetle tunnels in dead trees and logs.

If you have no snags, nesting blocks for bees are easy to make. They are also usually available at nature centers and wild bird stores.

Make one

All you need is a 6-inch by 6-inch piece of untreated lumber and a drill. On one face of the block, drill a series of holes at about one-inch intervals. The holes should be between 3/32-inch and 3/8-inch in diameter. Smaller holes should be three to four inches deep; larger holes should be about five inches deep.

This will accommodate bees of various sizes. Do not drill the holes completely through the block of wood. The block itself can be a foot or two long and strapped to a fence post in an open area where it gets morning sun.

Female bees build dividing walls in the tunnels to make a line of brood cells. You’ll know holes are being used when you see mud or bits of plant material at the entrance to the hole.

Bare ground

Most of the other 70 percent of native bees nest in the ground so they simply need access to bare soil. Just remove the vegetation from small patches of ground and compact the soil. The bees will do the rest.

For more information about pollinators, visit www.pollinators.org, www.monarchwatch.org, and www.xerces.org.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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