Doreen Fogle: Help the wild pollinators
February 16, 2018
I have written quite a bit about a few pollinators lately. I've covered the wild, native bees and moths. Of course there are the butterflies, especially the highly acknowledged monarch butterfly. But there is a whole host of other pollinators, and as I have mentioned before these include beetles, flies, wasps, hummingbirds, some bats (though not in our part of the country), and some ants, and they are very worthy of our awareness.
Those native bees I mentioned? These are not the European honeybee. There are some 1,600 species of native bees in California alone and they are very efficient at pollinating flowers, including crops.
The manzanita flowers are starting to open now. Stop and take a nice long look at these flowers and notice the variety of buzzing, flying insects that are working on the flowers. Many are bees, some are wasps and flies.
The wild pollinators are in trouble as is the honeybee, but not for all the same reasons. Their populations are on the decline and some very rapidly and dangerously. Habitat destruction and disruption are a major cause of loss, pesticide use on the farm and in the home garden are a significant cause, and the numbers of native plants, the food source of many pollinators are increasingly scarce in the landscape.
To review, pollination is when the pollen from the male part of the flower, the anther, is transported to the female part of the flower, the stigma, which reaches the ovary to fertilize it to produce a seed. Seeds and their fruits ensure the regeneration of the species as well as supplying food for people and many animals.
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Flowers are designed to attract pollinators and sometimes those pollinators have very specific methods of getting the pollen onto the stigma. This situation has evolved for thousands of years making some flowers dependent on specific pollinators with the right sized parts and methods to deliver the pollen to the right place.
Sometimes it's purely accidental where the insect is gathering the nectar and its fuzzy body inadvertently picks up some pollen and it gets brushed off onto the stigma of the next flower. Many hybrids are naturally created this way.
A pollinating fly that is quite commonly seen is the hoverfly, also known as the syrphid fly. It looks like a bee or a wasp, having black and yellow stripes, which is a good camouflage to protect itself from becoming prey to a bird. It has a characteristic flight pattern where it hovers in place, then moves up or down a little rotating about 90 degrees, hovering for a while, then changing position again.
The fly's adult stage is considered the second most important pollinator next to the wild bees, feeding on nectar and pollen from flowers. And its larva, a tiny maggot devours aphids and leafhoppers. So, it's beneficial to your garden at both stages.
Keeping the ecosystem healthy
We are clearing the forest understory for fire safety, invasive plants such as the blackberry, scotch broom, and annual non-native grasses and other weeds have taken a strong hold over the centuries, displacing many native plants, and we are landscaping our clearings with non-native plantings. It is the native plants that sustain the pollinators native to our area and they need enough native plants to remain here.
The native pollinators are keystone species in an ecosystem because they are a collection of species upon which many others depend. Without the pollinators there would not be enough food for people or animals and no seed for plant regeneration. No more nature! So it is up to all of us to help restore some habitat for our pollinators.
There are many beautiful native plants to use in a home and commercial landscapes. They are adapted to our soils and climate, use less water, and work in harmony with and sustain our local insects, birds, and other wildlife.
I mentioned the manzanita, the Howard McMinn manzanita (Arctostaphylos "McMinn") is one of the earliest bloomers, evergreen, and makes a handsome medium sized hedge.
The flowers on the Coffeeberry shrub (Frangula californica, or also known as Rhamnus californica) are very attractive to many pollinators. It is another evergreen shrub with low water needs, and produces red to black fruits that birds enjoy.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is yet another evergreen shrub, providing pollen and nectar for the pollinators by flowering in July, a time when little else is blooming. This is the shrub that produces the clusters of red berries in November to December, looking cheerful and feeding the birds.
Helping the little bugs out
You can provide food sources for the native pollinators by establishing a wildflower planting, choose species from the guides mentioned below. Strive for continual blooming throughout the season and many of each species, not small numbers of each. Include shrubs and have some taller trees nearby, especially for the hummingbirds to nest in.
Establish some habitat space by leaving areas of soil bare for the ground nesting bees.
Leave off the weed barriers, nobody can get through that, except Bermuda grass. Dead logs and snags (where safe) provide a lot of nesting spots. A rock wall or even a pile of rocks will house some.
Pithy stems like spent raspberry canes and butterfly bush stems can house native bee larvae, so either leave them standing a foot tall till spring or cut them and leave them nearby. And supply water by either a dripping faucet or hose, maybe not when we're in a mega-drought, or frequently replenishing a saucer of water.
And don't be so neat in the garden. Many insects, like the hoverfly, lay their eggs in leaf litter and overwinter there, so as much as you can, let them rot in place to let the native insects flourish.
Much attention has been given to the plight of the Monarch butterfly. It has especially suffered from broadscale removal of the very specific plant food for its larvae, the milkweed.
Campaigns to inform the public about their plight has led to a great public effort to plant milkweed. The Monarch has many factors it's dealing with, though, but the efforts by the public has had a positive effect. We can all help all the other pollinators by changing our landscape choices and gardening practices.
The Xerces Society works on the conservation of invertebrates and has a lot of great information on their website. Look for the Pollinator-Friendly Plant Lists and you will find a plant list for California that includes wildflowers, shrubs, and trees.
Also, the Pollinator Partnership has an excellent planting guide. You can get to it by looking under resources, then typing in your zip code.
There is an interesting article in the Atlantic, titled "Tiny Pollinators Need Wildlife Corridors Too," Jan. 19, 2017, that describes one woman's efforts to establish large community plantings for the wild pollinators.
We all need these little guys and gals, let's be sure to help them survive.
Doreen Fogle is a Nevada County-based landscape designer with Delightful Gardens. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her website is mydelightfulgardens.com.
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