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  • Writer's picturedarcygrahek

A Plant for Every Pollinator

Flowers are endlessly fascinating to many of us with their diverse range of color, shape, scent, or size. Seldom do we think of these flowers as reproductive organs that ensure the survival of a species. Flowers are arranged by nature to attract pollinators. The flowers are co-dependent upon the animal pollinating them, be that bird, bees, butterflies, beetles or another family. Only those species which use wind or water for pollination are exempt.

In the evolutionary scheme of flowers something as specific as the length of a bee’s tongue has influenced the shape of particular type of flower. Witness the abilities of a hummingbird to fully appreciate how its species design was honed by the need for flowers to reproduce through skillful pollination services. Butterflies hatch from their chrysalis at the same temperature that makes ready for them the flowers they will pollinate. Their proboscis that acts as a drinking straw allows them to drink deeply of nectar that will fuel their journey. The hairs and scales on their body and wings will carry pollen to the next flower, ensuring a longer distribution range of that plant over the butterflies’ migration routes.

The success and survival of many plant species requiring pollination has depended on their ability to attract pollinators. Flowering plant species are called angiosperms and they make up about 80 percent of the world’s plant species. Unlike conifers, angiosperms seeds are produced within a flower that has been pollinated. This relationship between plant and pollinator is millions and millions of years old. The strength and strategy of pollination depends on the diversity of flowers and their pollinators.

A recent study conducted by the National Science Foundation and a team from Rutgers University, headed by researcher Rachel Winfree, “Strategies of attracting pollination” has revealed the critical need of pollinator biodiversity for cranberry, blueberry and watermelon crops on farms in the mid-Atlantic US. The study used dozens of farms for its research; many of which use domesticated, non-native honey bee hives to help with pollination of crops.

The researchers found that while 5 or 6 bee species were dominant in pollination on a small scale, if an entire region was considered, farmers crops received adequate pollination when a high level of bio-diversity was met. Their research showed that on any one farm, there were those 5 or 6 native bee species that provided half of the pollination but over the wider observation of almost 50 farms, there were 100 different bee species observed by the study that met that same threshold of pollination services to crops. Native flowering plants offer the superior food and habitat for these pollinators in their “off” season from pollination of crops.

Human impact on the landscape is undeniable and not just in urban and suburban areas. We manage the sunny edges in which pollinators thrive and do their work: the edge of the roads, the edge of the waterways, the edge of a forest, and open meadows. Open meadows are often converted from habitat to farm. Forests are often converted from forest to clear-cut. In both of these situations, the suppression of weeds or brush by use of pesticides is often prescriptive. We humans are entirely too efficient at keeping things under control to the extent by which we eliminate species from local habitats. Habitats have become more and more fragmented and farther apart over time. Fewer corridors connect the “islands” of good habitat with native plants and their companion pollinators, erased by development or land use changes. We are losing biodiversity of plants and pollinators at an increasing rate.

Following a a truck spraying pesticide up Hwy 101 toward Coos Bay one June day last summer, I wondered how many species of flowers were being eliminated in the attempt to control grass and reduce mowing need to once a year. Do we trade cost of roadside maintenance for less biodiversity among pollinators? The count of flowering native plants along the 25 miles of highway between Bandon and Coos Bay is lower than the number of flowering invasive species. The spray truck did not reach as far as the Red Elderberry along the road so it survives. Also Douglas Aster will bloom in September because it comes up several months after the spray truck has made its treatment. Forestry practices eradicate pollinator shrubs by aerial spraying to remove the competition of light and water from young fir seedlings on tree plantations. “Real” forest is definitely not being re-created, that is a myth.

One table of natives at out first plant sale, Oct 12.

People and society can do a lot to change the trend of loss of biodiversity and loss of species among pollinators. We need to hold pollinator health as a value that informs how we live. Farmers can plant fallow fields and roadsides with native plants. Cities can use native plants as part of functional stormwater management landscapes or install development principals that include “green-thinking” such as including pollinator habitat in green spaces. Golf courses can create buffer zones away from their highly managed landscapes. Average homeowners and gardeners can provide the most diversity of flower types and with a little knowledge and using best practices, can create wonderful refuge areas that add up in a hurry. “Bee Cities” are becoming more popular because people are beginning to realize even their food systems are at stake. So it goes with the pollinators, someday it will go with us.

Mitakuye oyasin (We Are All Related)

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