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Do You Know Your Pollinators?


By Jennifer Meikle, Environmental Educator

As the weather becomes warmer, you may be starting to notice more bugs buzzing around and more flowers starting to bloom. Late March and April brings Bumble Bees and ground nesting bees, and later on in April tunnel nesting bees also become active. You will also begin to see more butterflies flying around. These species are known as pollinators. While the word “pollinator” probably conjures up images of bees, they are not the only type of pollinators that are important. We also need wasps, moths, butterflies, flies, and small animals, like birds and bats. A pollinator is any creature that helps to carry pollen from one flower to another. Pollination is necessary for most plants to produce fruits, seeds, and new plants.


Insects and animals like bats, beetles, and flies visit flowers for food, shelter, or materials to build their nests, while other pollinators like bees collect pollen on purpose. Other creatures, like birds and butterflies collect pollen unintentionally, the pollen rubbing off onto their bodies while they drink nectar from flowers and being transported from flower to flower as they do so. 


While most people might think of the Honey Bee when thinking about pollinators, the Honey Bee is actually a species from Europe, and is not native to North America. Honey Bees are like the domesticated chickens of the bee world. While they are good at producing honey commercially, on a farm, or for education, Honey Bees are not really the ones that need preservation. Honey Bees are not under threat of extinction. However, some species of North American native bee populations have been in decline, including the Bumble Bee. 


Native bees often go overlooked, while they are the ones responsible for most pollination. Most native bee species live not in hives, but alone in nests made in the soil, wood, or hollow plant stems. Most of these native species are small, don’t have queens, and don't produce honey. Native bees often get mistaken for flies, and they almost never sting, because they don’t have a hive with larvae and food to protect. Some types of native bees are Mason Bees, Cellophane Bees, Miner Bees, Sweat Bees, Leaf-cutter Bees, Carpenter Bees, and the more well-known Bumble Bees. Native bees are two to three times better pollinators than Honey Bees, preferring to collect pollen to bring back to their nests, whereas Honey Bees are generally more interested in the flower nectar than the pollen. Native bees are also less vulnerable to colony collapse disorder, which has decimated Honey Bee populations. 


If you want to be a friend to the pollinators, the best thing you can do is plant a wide variety of flowering native plants that bloom through all the seasons. Many bee and butterfly species will only use, eat, or lay their eggs on specific plants, so they rely on those heavily. You can also help by leaving bare patches of soil and fallen logs for bees to use as nesting sites and leaving plant stems throughout the winter months as many insects use them to overwinter.

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