As I write, the blossoms in our raspberry patch are busy with pollinators — a happy hour of sorts — more like a happy week or more — when bees and other insects feed or collect the pollen and nectar from the flowers. The result is a meal for them and for us a few weeks down the road when we can start picking the fruits of their activity.
It is state and national Pollinator Week. A quick Internet search is not turning up any press about this or many state activities to raise people’s awareness about the pollinators, mostly insects, who keep the engine of life — truly — going.
Pollinators are responsible for one-third of all our food. Imagine not having strawberries, apples, blueberries and tomatoes, for a start. Nearly 75 percent of all plants on Earth require animals to reproduce and insects, especially bees, are the primary players, or workers.
It’s not just people that benefit. Wildlife, too, is dependent on pollinators to maintain their food sources. What do deer, wild turkeys and other game creatures eat? Berries and seeds that are the result of pollination. If you are feeding the wild birds, where do the sunflowers come from? They are pollinated by bees. And the insects themselves are food for numerous other animals.
If the pollinators disappear, most of life on Earth would disappear also.
National Pollinator Week is a time to consider what we do for pollinators and to honor them, something that should be done every day (like the answer to “when is Children’s Day?” Every day is Children’s Day). A couple of months ago I was speaking about bees at an event and was amazed at how few people had even heard about colony collapse disorder, the name given to the perplexing and disconcerting problem of disappearing honeybees. Last winter in Maine was a very bad year for beekeepers, with people losing a good number of their hives, in some cases all of them. But honeybees aren’t the only type of bee in the state. There are more than 270 native bees, some of which are substantial and important pollinators of crops. They are disappearing, too.
What is going on to put our pollinators at risk? Habitat destruction is at the top of the list, followed by the overuse of pesticides; diseases and parasites that never used to be a problem; the introduction of alien species that displace our native organisms, both plant and animal; climate change; genetically modified crops that have pesticides built in and some people even suggest microwave radiation from sources such as cellphones.
That is the bad news. The good news is that everyone can do something to help. The first thing is to become aware and concerned. You don’t need to keep bees to do this.
Go out in your yard, a nearby park, even a planted strip near a shopping mall, almost anywhere this time of year there are flowering plants and just look. You will see pollinators. Watch them for a while. See how many kinds there are. You will also see other insects, some of which are probably in the category “beneficial insects” such as flower flies, which often are misidentified as bees. They help keep the populations of destructive insects such as aphids at bay.
If you are doing your search at home, keep track of the plants they are feeding on and resolve to plant more. Watch for plants that are not so attractive and plant less of them. If you have plants that struggle without the use of insecticides to look decent, pull them up and plant something less of a hassle and safer for the pollinators.
Other suggestions are to plant flowering trees and shrubs that offer more blooms — crab apples are a great choice since they also feed birds. Look for native species of plants since they have evolved with the pollinators and attract more than alien ornamentals do (as beautiful as they are). Leave a weedy patch for native bees in a corner of your yard. It is very justifiable and you can cut down on the herbicide use too.
Birdbaths are a great addition for providing water sources for insects as well as birds, but make sure you change the water to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. You can even set up places for native bees to lay eggs — there are websites to find directions for constructing appropriate nesting “boxes” and you can even purchase ones already made.
The general population needs to become more aware of the importance of pollinators. The scientific community is already on alert. Now it’s our turn. Learning about pollinators is fascinating, and gardening for pollinators is really bringing it back to the beginning of this plea — remember that pollinators are responsible for so much of the food we eat. We need them — and now they need us to pay attention.
Amy Campbell of Rockport is a Maine-trained Master Gardener and beekeeper.