Pollinators: Where Would We Be(e) Without Them?

Help Protect Our Precious Pollinators!


When planning your landscape this Spring, don’t forget about the pollinators!

Birds, bats, bees and other pollinating creatures are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take. They also sustain our ecosystems and natural resources by helping plants reproduce. In fact, without them, agricultural economies, our food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse.

As these critters travel from plant to plant, carrying pollen on their bodies, they facilitate the transfer of genetic material critical to the reproductive system of most flowering plants. The plants then provide us with countless fruits, vegetables and nuts, as well as half of the world’s oils, fibers and raw materials.

To highlight the importance of our pollinators in our everyday world, Walt Disney Studios put together a full-length film a few years ago, titled “Wings of Life.”  Here’s a preview:

 

Alas, this precious service provided by pollinators requires attention and support — and it’s increasingly in jeopardy. According to the non-profit Pollinator Partnership:

“Many pollinator populations are in decline and this decline is attributed most severely to a loss in feeding and nesting habitats. Pollution, the misuse of chemicals, disease, and changes in climatic patterns are all contributing to shrinking and shifting pollinator populations.”

But you can help. Read on to find out how.

Wyoming’s Four Pollinator B’s

In Wyoming, most pollinating animals are insects. They pollinate because they’re hungry. Some are collecting pollen as food for their young. While others (such as butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bees) drink the nectar within the flower.

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Still others, such as beetles and flies, don’t consume either the pollen or the nectar. They feed on flower petals or other pollinating insects. In each case, the pollinator collects pollen accidentally, simply by coming in contact with it.

Let’s look at the “Four B’s” that pollinate Wyoming landscapes: Birds, bees, butterflies and beetles.

Birds

Hummingbirds, that is. There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds in the world, but only four are native to Wyoming: Rufous, ruby-throated, broad-tailed and calliope.

Like many North American hummingbird species, these four are migratory. In fact, migratory hummingbirds often cover enormous distances each year as they journey between summer breeding ground and their overwintering areas in the south.

For instance, the rufous hummingbird travels roughly 3,900-miles each way and breeds farther north than any other hummingbird. Its summer breeding grounds can be as far north as Alaska, but it always follows the Rocky Mountains on its return trip south.

Bees

Bees that are native to Wyoming include bumble, leafcutter, mason and sweat bee varieties. Bees are the most important pollinators in the state, and there are an estimated 800 different species of bees that reside here. Almost all of them depend on pollen to feed their larvae. In fact, their hairy little bodies produce a static charge that is thought to help them efficiently gather the stuff from each flower they visit.

Bees are often grouped by both their nesting preferences and their sociability. By those standards, most bee species in Wyoming are solitary ground nesters.

Butterflies

Native Wyoming butterflies include skipper, swallowtail, white, sulfur, gossamer-winged, metalmark, and brush-footed. Almost all adult butterflies depend on nectar for energy. Many butterfly species prefer flat or umbrella-shaped flowers and frequently transfer pollen as they walk on top of them.

Butterflies are very active during the day and visit a variety of wildflowers. However, because of their design, they’re less efficient than bees at transferring pollen between plants.

Unlike compact and furry bees, butterflies are highly perched on long thin legs. So they don’t pick up much pollen on their bodies. And yet, they are still an important component of the pollinator system.

Beetles

Beetles comprise the largest group of pollinating animals on the planet. Although we typically regard them as pests, they are in fact responsible for pollinating 88% of the world’s flowering plants. Seventy-six different species of beetles are native to Wyoming.

Some of these, such as the longhorn flower beetles, have hairy thoraxes, conducive to transporting pollen. They’re often observed actively feeding on flowers in daylight. (After which, they typically defecate on the flowers, which is why they’re known as “mess-and-soil pollinators.”) Many beetle species also eat pollen, but because they’re clumsy fliers, they need a wide opening to get inside the flower.

Doing Your Part

Ready to create a pollinator-friendly landscape around your home? The U.S. Forest Service offers the following tips:

Mix It Up

Use a wide variety of plants that bloom from early spring into late fall. Then help pollinators find and use them by planting in clumps, rather than single plants. Include native plants that are adapted to your local climate, soil and native pollinators. (Don’t forget that night-blooming flowers help support pollinating moths.)

Just Say “No” to Hybrids and Pesticides

Avoid modern hybrid flowers, especially those with “doubled” blooms. Often plant breeders have unwittingly left the pollen, nectar, and fragrance out of these blossoms while creating the “perfect” blooms for us.

Eliminate pesticides whenever possible. If you must use a pesticide, use the least-toxic material possible. Read labels carefully before purchasing, as many pesticides are especially dangerous for bees. Use the product properly. Spray at night when bees and most other pollinators are not active. (See related article, “Pest Management in the Garden…Naturally!“)

Feed Their Young

Include larval host plants in your landscape. Particularly if you want colorful butterflies, grow plants for their caterpillars. They WILL eat them, so place these plants where unsightly leaf damage can be tolerated. Accept that some host plants are less than ornamental, if not outright weeds. A butterfly guide will help you determine the plants you need to include. (See related article, “The Butterfly Garden: Simple Elegance.”

Create a damp salt lick for butterflies and bees. Use a dripping hose, drip irrigation line, or place your birdbath on bare soil to create a damp area. Mix a small bit of sea salt or wood ashes into the mud. (Sea salt provides a broader range of micro-nutrients than regular table salt.)

Give ’em Shelter

Spare that limb! By leaving dead trees, or at least an occasional dead limb, you provide essential nesting sites for native bees. Make sure these are not a safety hazard for people walking below. You can also build a bee condo by drilling holes of varying diameter about 3 to 5 inches deep in a piece of scrap lumber mounted to a post or under eaves. (See related article, “What’s the Buzz? Attracting Bees to Your Garden.”)

Nectar and Other Resources

You can add to nectar resources by providing a hummingbird feeder. To make artificial nectar, use four parts water to one part table sugar. (Never use artificial sweeteners, honey, or fruit juices.) Place something red on the feeder, as this color is the most attractive to them. Be sure to clean your feeder with hot soapy water at least twice a week to keep it free of mold.

Butterflies need resources other than nectar. They are attracted to unsavory foodstuffs, such as moist animal droppings, urine and rotting fruits. Try putting out slices of overripe bananas, oranges and other fruits, or a sponge in a dish of lightly salted water to see which butterflies come to investigate.

Want to Learn More?

The University of Wyoming Extension, in cooperation with the Wyoming Specialty Crop Program and Barnyards & Backyards, has prepared 92-page pollinator guidebook, “Promoting Pollinators on Your Place: A Wyoming Guide.” 

This free, downloadable guidebook is chock-full of everything you ever wanted to know about Wyoming pollinators and how to make your landscape more pollinator-friendly.


Sources:

Plants with Altitude

Pollinator Partnership

U.S. Forest Service

University of Wyoming Extension

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