August 28, 2015
By Amy von Chamier
Gulf Fritillary on Echinacea. Photo by Ash von Chamier
We have all heard by now that the honey bees are in trouble. Apis mellifera, the honey bee makes a great “poster child” species; there is a lot of data being collected about them, but they are not the only ones in trouble. Native bees are indispensable in pollinating many native plants, and among the 4000 species, some are specialists. Native bees also make a significant contribution to the pollination of agricultural crops. There is evidence that native bees significantly contribute to the pollination of blueberries, watermelons, and cucumbers, not to mention eggplants and tomatoes, which are a specialty of bumblebees. Butterflies, beetles and flies can also contribute to pollination of our food production and to the overall health and diversity of the natural world. These creatures are a vitally important link in the production of fruit and the reproduction of plants.
It is no surprise that insecticides can kill these populations of insects; that is what these chemicals were made to do. The issue of pesticide in food crops is a complex and divisive subject for farmers and consumers to grapple with. Still, the average homeowner can greatly reduce the pesticide load on the environment and make their yard a haven for these diverse creatures that plants depend on. Using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a strategy for controlling pests. Be in the habit of spotting pests early by scouting. Make it a habit to walk through your landscape and get to know the cast of characters living there. Properly identify potential threats before you treat. A perceived threat may not be harmful at all! Some insect damage should be tolerated in a Florida friendly yard. Often natural predators move in to correct a problem before it becomes dire. If there is a pest that is out of control, use the least toxic methods of control first; starting with physical controls; squish bugs, hand pull weeds, keep debris piles away from structures. If you must use pesticide, spot treat when possible and use the most targeted chemical possible. The safest course of action for the pollinating insects is to use no insecticide at all, but if you must use an insecticide, follow the label instructions. The label is the law!
When choosing plants use larval host plants as well as pollen and nectar producing trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, and herbs. Your local nurseries can help you make good plant choices. Sterile hybrids do not necessarily produce the pollen needed for the plant’s reproduction, which is the source of protein for pollinators. Using native plants when possible supports the local ecology, and often saves water because the plants are adapted to the local environment and average weather patterns. Choosing native plants also helps to preserve the unique character that makes North Florida so incredibly appealing to begin with.
In mid-summer and winter there is a dearth of nectar, which is the source of carbohydrate for insects, and pollen producing plants, so planting a diverse succession of blooming plants is key for keeping pollinators healthy and robust. Luckily, having blooming plants year round is in sync with what most gardeners aim to do anyway.
Reconsidering the standard of the all green lawn is another way we can help pollinators; why not have a meadow of flowering plants instead? Spring meadows of lyre leaf sage, blooming like a fine purple mist, with bright yellow cowslips dotted all around, truly are a lovely sight. Places such as these are alive with insects. Devoting some of your lawn space or simply allowing small native flowers to become part of your lawn is a big step towards making your yard a pollinator safe place. Not only does allowing native plants in your lawn provide forage diversity that native bees in particular need, but also reduces the need for herbicide. Your neighbors won’t mind a yard full of blooming flowers, but don’t let any noxious weeds get a toe hold. Make sure that you comply with your homeowner’s association agreement or local ordinances. When a meadow is humming with life and activity you may be surprised by the beauty and diversity you can find in your own back yard.
Some colorful pollinator friendly native plants that do well in our Florida landscapes and available at local nurseries are Viola, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Salvia , Monarda punctata(spotted horsemint), Helianthus (sunflowers), Solidago (goldenrod), Gaillardia (blanket flower), and many more. I would like to put in a special pitch for the sometimes troublesome Bidens alba, known by many as Spanish needles. For pollinator forage in midsummer this plant can’t be beat. It is long blooming, drought tolerant, and readily reseeds itself. It is beautiful when grown in large drifts with its pure white petals and their perfect yellow center bobbing in the sunlight under the fierce activity of bees, butterflies and wasps. One caveat, don’t let it grow where you will brush against it; its seeds cling to your clothing, your dog’s fur, and your children.
Everyone has limited space and resources, and all individuals have to prioritize what is important in our lives. We are the stewards of nature for future generations, and we have an opportunity right now to preserve and enjoy this spectacular and diverse microcosm in our own backyards. Having vegetables and fruit available, and having diverse and thriving natural ecosystems seems universally appealing. The issue of keeping our pollinators healthy and productive is one that could be solved by individuals with a common purpose. You can read the National Pollinator Strategy at . . . https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Health%20Strategy%202015.pdf
Amy von Chamier is volunteering as a Master Gardener in training with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov