Photo by Donna Legare
Photo 1, Green Sweat Bee on Purple Cone Flower
Photo 2 Native Bee on Purple Cone Flower
By Donna Legare
Imagine a world without bees and other pollinators. Without cross pollination, there would be no apples, oranges, blueberries, broccoli, squash or most other fruits and vegetables. Bees are our most important pollinators because they deliberately forage for pollen, unlike other insects such as butterflies which forage primarily for nectar and may accidentally come into contact with pollen.
Bees also exhibit ‘flower constancy’, visiting one particular plant species during any given foraging trip. By foraging from the same type of flower, pollen is not wasted on the wrong species of flower. This is also how beekeepers are able to produce specific honeys such as tupelo, orange blossom or sourwood.
Other insects that pollinate are wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and beetles. Gardeners can help increase populations of pollinators and thereby help farmers and vegetable gardeners increase yields by planting a diversity of plants that are attractive to these insects. Native plants are often the best because native pollinators are adapted to foraging from these flowers efficiently and effectively.
There are many trees and shrubs that attract pollinators – holly, cabbage palm, Chickasaw plum and blueberry are just a few in our yard that literally buzz with bees when in bloom. Some of the best garden plants in our yard for attracting pollinators are purple coneflower, horsemint, ironweed, African blue basil and anise hyssop.
To attract pollinators to our vegetable garden, I always plant African blue basil. Not only is it beautiful with its greenish purple leaves and purple and white flowers, it is usually in motion with bees working the flowers. We also encourage small numbers of weedy wildflowers like wild ageratum in the garden and even sprinkle in some zinnia seeds each year among the tomatoes and eggplants.
As gardeners, we can go one step further in helping pollinators. Try to avoid using insecticides and especially steer clear of garden insecticides that contain neonicotinoids. These are systemic chemicals that are taken up through various plant parts and distributed throughout the plant making the plant toxic to aphids, bugs, beetles and caterpillars as well as to pollinators that are gathering pollen and nectar, though they are safe to people and other mammals.
Unfortunately the labels of many of these garden products do not mention the toxicity of the product to bees nor do they suggest applying them only to non-flowering plants or after plants have bloomed. The Xerces Society (www.xerces.org), a non-profit organization promoting the conservation of invertebrates, is working with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop new methods for testing effects of insecticides on native bees. It will be years for these products to change; meanwhile, do not purchase garden insecticides with the following neonicotinoid ingredients – imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, thiamethoxam.
What we do in our own yards can make a difference in the health of pollinators in our community. Why not create a garden in your yard to provide habitat for bees and butterflies? Choose plants that provide nectar and pollen throughout the seasons to insure a continuous food supply. Include caterpillar host plants in your garden and always be careful with insecticides.
Donna Legare is co-owner of Native Nurseries and serves on the Horticulture/Urban Forestry Advisory Committee for Leon County Extension (UF/IFAS). For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov