Pollinators are your friends

  • A bumblebee alights on the bloom of a thistle in Berlin, Vt. AP

For LiveWell
Thursday, June 01, 2017

What are pollinators? They are bees, butterflies and hummingbirds as well as some beetles, flies and other critters. Pollinators play a significant role in the food production process and provide ecosystem services beneficial to human nutrition, health and wellbeing.

What is pollination? Pollination is a key stage in the reproduction of flowering plants of all kinds. Pollination allows plants to reproduce, providing the foliage, fruits and seeds that we eat and much of the flora in our natural environment, gardens and parks. Some plants are wind-pollinated while others must depend on pollinators to distribute pollen to other plants in order to promote reproduction. Think of pollen as “magic dust,” not the yucky yellow stuff that makes some people sneeze.

Bees are key players in the pollination world as around 70 percent of the world’s most produced crop species rely to some extent on insect pollination. The recent decline of the bee population is very detrimental to the global economy as it effects approximately 9 percent of agricultural production.

Bees have a keen sense of smell and use their antennae to locate flowers as well as other bees. They are attracted to mild, sweet fragrances and seem to prefer blue, yellow and bright white flowers, although bee biologists are not positive about that – they may just see in black and white. Bumble bees have hairy tongues they use like mops to remove the nectar out of the center of the plant. Asters, Bachelor Buttons, Candytuft, Forget-Me-Nots, Heliotrope, Sunflowers, Sweet William and Zinnias are bee favorites.

Butterflies are much less efficient than bees in regard to pollination. But who cares? They are beautiful to watch. Butterflies like to flit among the blooms, especially flat-topped flowers like daisies and zinnias where they can rest awhile. Butterflies reach into tightly clustered flowers like Heliotrope and Marigolds for nectar much easier than bees because they have a particularly long proboscis; and unlike bees they can easily see the colors red and purple and pink. They are also attracted to bright yellows and oranges. Butterflies are important pollinators of both wild and cultivated flowers, especially Wild Asters and Goldenrod and cultivated Dahlias and Dogbane.

Hummingbirds like flower nectar and particularly need it to maintain their energetic lifestyle. They have a long proboscis — a tube-like tongue and are able to extract nectar from deep within tubular blossoms like Fuchsia and Petunias. When the hummingbird pushes his proboscis and often even part of its body down into the tubular portion of the blossom, pollen attaches to the feathers on its head and back as it feeds. The pollen then falls off or brushes off when it goes onto the next blossom and “voila” – pollination occurs.

And because hummingbirds hover while they are extracting nectar, they prefer flowers that stick out from the plant’s foliage, providing them with air space for their rapidly fluttering wings. Tubular plants in bright colors fit this bill, but most any hue will do; they just can see the brighter colors from farther away.

You can attract these helpful pollinators to your gardens, containers or hanging plants by growing “pollinator-friendly” plants. Containers full of bright, tubular or plants with flat petals will provide a buffet for these little guys and you will have the pleasure of watching them all while they do nature’s work!

Mix and match your plantings and remember that bees like most every flower that gives off a mild, sweet fragrance; butterflies and hummingbirds are more inclined to gravitate toward tubular flowers or those with flat petals and bright colors. Some flowers, like the Zinnia, appeal to all three.

Hanging plants or plant pots filled with Fuchsia, Impatiens, Lantana, Petunias, Verbena or any combination of those are virtual butterfly and hummingbird magnets.

So create your own pollinator-friendly havens to support numerous kinds of native bees, as well as honey bees and other pollinators and planting a diverse mix of flowering plants that provides a sequence of blooms from early spring to late fall will have the most impact. Even a small patch of the right flowers can help, as it adds to the larger landscape mosaic in which the pollinators live and search for foods throughout their short lives. Enhancing your outdoor areas this year to attract these great little pollinators to your home will not only help the overall pollination process but will also be a great source of pleasure for you. It’s a win-win!

(Excerpts from the National Garden Clubs publication “Inviting Butterflies Into Your Garden,” the UNH Cooperative Extension and the Xerces Society. Joyce Kimball is a member of the Bow Garden Club and a UNH Cooperative Extension Master Gardener.)