Flowering edibles are great for pollinators

  • This July 22, 2011 photo of a zucchini plant, shown in a raised bed garden near New Market, Va., is a favorite of squash bees that forage in its flowers, fertilizing them in the process. Some bee species are generalists while others specialize in the types of blossoms they seek. (Dean Fosdick via AP) Dean Fosdick

  • Blueberries must be fertilized if fruit is to develop. Native bees, bumblebees and honeybees are among the diverse group of invertebrate pollinators that make it happen. AP

Associated Press
Published: 2/27/2019 9:23:53 AM

Planting clumps of bright, successively blooming flowers is a popular method for attracting foraging pollinators like bees and butterflies. But savvy vegetable and fruit growers know flowering edibles will entice them, too.

Ornamental shrubs, trees, crops and vines will bring pollinators to your yard while at the same time provide nourishment for the family table.

Bees and many other species transfer pollen grains and seeds from one flower to another, fertilizing plants so they can thrive and produce food.

The pollinators, in turn, are rewarded with the plants’ sugary nectars.

“When we think of our diet, the rule of thumb is that one out of every three bites we take is dependent upon pollinators,” said Ed Spevak, who manages the St. Louis Zoo’s Center for Native Pollination. It was among the nation’s first zoos to have a dedicated invertebrate department.

“When you want flavor, color and nutrition, then you really need to start thinking about bees and all the services they perform for our diets,” Spevak said.

Familiarize yourself with the pollinators common in your area and learn which plants they prefer.

“Some bee species are active only in the spring or maybe just the summer, while others are active all season long, such as bumblebees and honeybees,” said Frank Drummond, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Maine. “This relates to when you need to have plants flowering in your garden.”

Some bees are generalists while others specialize in the types of blooms they seek.

“It is really an evolutionary thing,” Drummond said. “Specialists usually have a very unique anatomy (specific tongue length and body size) and behaviors that have been fine-tuned over many generations, while generalists have anatomy and behaviors that allow them to be less efficient across all flower species.”

Many pollinator species are in decline or disappearing because of habitat and forage losses, improper pesticide use, disease and parasites.

“Honeybees get all the press but are not in danger,” Spevak said. “It’s the native bees and bumblebees that are disappearing.”

Install pollinator-friendly habitat if you want to help rebuild pollinator populations, he said. Many native plants that can support the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly population also will help native bees, he said.

“You’ll become a conservationist by planting a native garden with plants that provide a healthy diet,” he said.

When landscaping to lure pollinators, it’s really about flower diversity, not abundance, Spevak said. “If you’re a tomato grower, for example, it would behoove you to recruit bumblebees and wild bees rather than honeybees,” he said. “They’re much better pollinators for those plants.”

Other typical pairings of edible plants and pollinators include:

■ Squash, pumpkins, melons – squash bees, carpenter bees.

■ Lowbush blueberries, blackberries and raspberries – bumblebees, sweat bees, mining bees, digger bees, mason bees.

■ Almonds – honeybees, bumblebees, mason bees.

■ Tomatoes – bumblebees, sweat bees, carpenter bees.

■ Thyme – bumblebees, honeybees, digger bees, mason bees, sweat bees, yellow-faced bees.

Pollinators other than bees include hummingbirds, tropical bats, moths, flies, ants, hornets and beetles. Many of these are inadvertent pollinators.

“These are animals that visit flowers sometimes to feed on their resources such as oils, nectar, pollen or petals and in doing so sometimes pollinate the flower,” Drummond said.

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