Call it the pollinator challenge.
This spring, visit Birmingham Botanical Gardens, a local arboretum, nature preserve or community garden. Walk along a trail at Ruffner Mountain or just take some time to observe your own backyard.
You’ll soon notice pollinators at work. Butterflies, moths, bees and critters of all kinds flying, crawling and buzzing from plant to plant. While you watch these wonderful creatures carry out their daily routine, remember this:
One out of every three bites of food you put in your mouth is created with the help of pollinators, according to Farmers.gov, a Department of Agriculture website.
Moreover, 80% of the world’s flowering plants need a pollinator to reproduce. Insects, like moths, also contribute by becoming a food for birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.
Pollinators are the indispensable link in our food chain.
Join us in this series about pollinators in Alabama, where we will examine why they matter, how to help them flourish and ways you can enjoy them.
Let’s begin with a quick tutorial about pollinators.
What are Pollinators
When you think about pollinators, two celebrities in the insect world come to mind—honey bees and the Monarch butterfly.
But did you know that Alabama has 400 different kinds of native bees that quietly go about pollinating all kinds of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables?
“Most people, when they think of pollinators, think of bees and butterflies,” said Dr. Alvin Diamond, longtime biologist and founder of Troy University’s Arboretum.
“A pollinator is an animal that transfers the pollen from one flower to another or sometimes within the same flower that allows for fertilization and seeding fruit. Pollinators range from birds, bats, mice, beetles, ants, lizards and even mosquitoes.”
Pollinators and plants have evolved over a long period of time in a mutually beneficial relationship. The plant provides some sort of reward to the pollinator whether it’s food in the form of nectar or a warm place. In return, the animal transfers the pollen to another plant so that it will produce seed.
“There are many different relationships between organisms and plants where flowers are a particular shape or a particular color or particular scent or open at a certain time of the day or night, that attracts a very specific pollinator. It’s a continuous circle of life,” Diamond added.
Alabama Blueberries Need a Native Bee
How important is this relationship, especially between native pollinators, fruits and vegetables?
Without the right kind of insects, you get blooms but no fruit.
Alabama’s native blueberries are a good example.
Diamond described how intricate the process of pollination between native blueberries and native bees is.
“Our native blueberries are very specific to a type of bee. The bee has to have a certain weight to its body and they will actually grab the flower and vibrate their wings. It is called buzz pollination. They have to vibrate their wings at a certain frequency and that causes the pollen to be released from the flower so that it can be transferred to another flower. Without the bee at the right size, beating his wings at the right frequency, you don’t get blueberries.”
Pollinators and Farmers
Olivia Fuller, an Auburn University Commercial Horticulture Regional Extension Agent, has another take on why pollinators matter.
“I’m all about saving the bees. They’re great to admire, to plant things and watch them work the flowers. They’re amazing. But, don’t we love our farmers even more?
I feel that if we are saving the pollinators, we’re saving the farmers and that’s why we are working to help pollinators thrive.”
According to Fuller, when Alabama fruits and vegetables receive adequate pollination from bees and other pollinators, farmers can potentially increase their yield up to 60%.
“The farmers are able to get more money—continue to farm, continue to grow food for us. They are able to allocate their land use better. They’re not having to plant 50 acres to get a yield that could have been done with 20 acres.”
Food for Birds Too
And let’s not forget, pollinators are also essential links in the food chains of ecosystems.
“Pollinators are essential to the survival of about 200 species of birds that breed in Alabama or pass through during migration,” said Alabama Audubon’s Executive Director Scot Duncan.
During the warm season, caterpillars, moths and butterflies are the primary source of food for these birds. They gobble them up in the spring and feed them to their young in their nests. And they snarf them down in the fall when fattening up for the winter or the migration back to the tropics/back south.
“No pollinators, no birds. Pollinator decline is one of the reasons why we have 30% fewer birds than we did 50 years ago,” Duncan added.
Biggest Threat to Pollinators
Both Diamond and Fuller agree, the biggest threats to local Alabama pollinators are:
- Habitat modification + loss—we are removing the places via development that these insects and animals are able to live and their food sources
- Herbicides and insecticides—when they target one species, unfortunately they can potentially wipe out beneficial pollinators, especially local natives.
Other threats include removal of leaf litter and yard debris, where native bees thrive. In the pollinator world, un-raked lawns are a good thing. For farmers, leaving their fence rows untilled helps a number of native bees who reside in old twigs and nest under leaf litter.
Supporting Our Pollinators
There are numerous pro-pollinator initiatives. In agriculture, Fuller described a project through Walmart and other large purchasers of fruits and vegetables.
In order to sell to these companies, farmers must meet certain requirements, like planting 10% of their land for pollinators or preserving pollinator habitat. Local agricultural extension offices are working closely with farmers to meet these requirements.
It might be counterintuitive, but by doing this, the farmers are actually increasing their yields and making more money. Plus, the pollinator population is healthier.
Making Our Landscape Beautiful
Diamond added one other reason why protecting pollinators matter—incorporating the native plants that help the pollinators flourish make our landscape richer and more beautiful.
He remarked, “We need to not only preserve natural areas with native species (to help pollinators), but we should incorporate these plants into our landscape. Many of our native plants are very beautiful. They adapt to our climate. They don’t need a lot of extra water or fertilizer. They provide food and homes to many of these native pollinators. So even in your backyard you can plant native species and encourage pollinators in your neighborhood.”
Want to learn more about pollinators in Alabama? Here are some of our favorite resources:
- Auburn University’s Bee Lab
- Alabama A&M and Auburn University Cooperative Extension Service —a compilation of pollinator guides
Connect with your local botanical garden or arboretum, including, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Huntsville Botanical Garden, Mobile Botanical Gardens and Dothan Area Botanical Gardens
With the help of Harvey Cotten, the longtime Executive Director of the Huntsville Botanical Gardens, our second installment will include tips on how to build a pollinator garden no matter how big or small your yard may be.