Do you have a garden? Do you enjoy growing vegetables, fruits or flowers?
If so, it’s likely that you depend on pollinators.
If a pollinator sounds to you like some kind of superhero, you’re not all that far off. Pollinators are insects or animals that fertilize plants, resulting in the formation of seeds that will become the next generation of plants.
In fact, pollinators are necessary for three-quarters of the world’s major food crops. Some, like corn and wheat, are wind-pollinated while others, like soybeans, are self-pollinating. But the majority of our fruits, nuts and vegetables rely on pollinators.
In addition, it’s estimated that there are 300,000 species of flowering plants worldwide that require insects or animals for pollination.
Who are these pollinators? Most are insects, such as bees, butterflies, beetles and flies. Others can be bats, birds and other mammals.
Pollinators are among the most amazing creatures on the plant. Consider the monarch butterfly, which travels each fall from our backyards to central Mexico.
How is it possible for a tiny insect that weighs about half a gram (equivalent to a fraction of an ounce) to fly 3,000 miles south for the winter—and 3,000 miles back in the summer?
What’s even more amazing is that the monarchs migrating to Mexico live for eight months, while the monarchs heading north in the spring live just five to seven weeks each. It takes four or five generations to reach the northern U.S.; the butterflies will stop, find a patch of milkweed, where they mate and lay their eggs.
The eggs hatch caterpillars, which feast on the milkweed before forming a chrysalis and transforming into a butterfly. Each generation will travel a few hundred miles and repeat the reproduction cycle. Scientists have yet to understand why monarchs migrate and how they know where to go.
Bees are no less remarkable. About one-fifth of the 20,000 species of bees are pollinators. Honey bees are vitally important to our nation’s agriculture, contributing nearly $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, in the form of increased yields and superior crop quality.
It’s estimated that there are about 2.7 million bee colonies in the U.S. The California almond industry alone uses 1.8 million colonies of honey bees to pollinate nearly a million acres of almond orchards.
Honey bees live in hives with a queen, who lays up to 1,500 eggs per day. They can fly for up to six miles and move as fast as 15 miles per hour. The average honey bee visists 50 to 100 flowers during a nectar collection trip but makes only one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
Another mind-blowing fact is that honey bees can carry an amount of pollen or nectar almost equal to their own weight—while even the most advanced airplanes can only carry a quarter of their own weight!
Risks to pollinators
Both managed honey bees and native or wild bees face challenges that can reduce their populations. These include loss of habitat, diseases, parasites and exposure to pesticides.
Some butterflies, such as monarchs, are also on the decline because of deforestation, habitat loss, climate change and other factors.
It’s important to our food supply and plant diversity to maintain the health and vitality of pollinators.
What farmers are doing
Simply by virtue of managing millions of acres of land, U.S. farmers are in a position to help safeguard pollinator health.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) has partnered with several groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Honey Bee Health Coalition, to help enhance pollinator habitat and health.
While corn does not require pollination by honey bees, farmers recognize the integral role they play in a productive agriculture system and are committed to improving the health and viability of honey bees.
Farmers also support monarch conservation. A unique program, called the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, helps enable efficient and effective restoration and conservation of vital milkweed habitat.
What you can do
Home gardeners can also help support pollinators. Experts have suggested these tips.
- Choose plants and flowers in a variety of shapes and colors, and with a variety of smells.
- Ensure that something is blooming each season.
- Plant milkweed for monarchs.
- Provide clean water for pollinators, in a shallow dish, bowl or birdbath.
- Install a bee block or bee hotel.
- Border your fruits and vegetables with native flowers. This will also help control pests.
To learn more about pollinators, contact SDSU Extension or reach out to organizations like the Honeybee Health Coalition.