What Pollinates my Plants?

Black-tailed bumblebee (Bombus melanogygus

The Black-tailed bumblebee (Bombus melanogygus) is native to western North America. Photo: Gary Sherlund/WSU

What have pollinators done for me lately?

Unless you grow primarily grains, you depend on pollinators for those luscious fresh fruits and vegetables we all crave this time of year. We depend on pollinators for one in every three bites of our food. Bees pollinate about 130 agricultural crops in the United States. The value of these commercial crops totals $14 billion. Without insect pollinators, we would not have chocolate!

Which animals pollinate flowering plants?

  • Birds (including hummingbirds)
  • Bats (but only in desert and tropical climates)
  • Insects (Bees and wasps, butterflies and moths, flies, beetles, and mosquitoes (Yes, mosquitoes pollinate several types of bog orchid)
  • Humans (To develop new varieties. Also, in Southwest China, excessive pesticide use eradicated wild bees so people are now hired to pollinate apples and pears by hand. Let’s not go that route.)

What insects pollinate plants around here?

  • More than 150 species of bees and wasps
  • More than 120 species of butterflies
  • More than 500 species of moths
  • Unknown number of species of flies, beetles and mosquitoes

No systematic surveys for pollinators have been conducted in northeastern Washington, but for a partial list of bees, butterflies and moths that have been documented in northeastern Washington, visit the Slow Food Upper Columbia website.

leafcutter bee (Megachile)
The leafcutter bee (Megachile) is a North American native that cuts pieces of leaves or petals to line its nest. Photo: Gary Sherlund/WSU

Should I be concerned about pollinators?

Populations of many pollinators have dramatically decreased. You might have heard of colony collapse disorder in honeybees, the near disappearance of some bumblebee species, or the large decline of monarch butterflies. Habitat loss, pesticide use, diseases, parasites and invasive species all contribute either directly or indirectly to the decline.

What can I do to help in my yard and garden?

Pollinators need:

  • Food (nectar, pollen, larval food sources)
  • Nesting sites (ground nests and cavity nests)
  • Overwintering sites
  • Habitat that is safe and free from pesticides

Providing these will help pollinators continue to work for you!

Provide food

Grow plants that produce nectar and pollen, and which are host plants for pollinator larvae. The larvae of many butterfly and moth species live on only a few types of plants. In this area, for two examples, larvae of the small blue butterflies live only on lupines, and the larvae of fritillary butterflies live on violets. For more information, download this informative publication about butterfly host plants

For Pacific Northwest regional lists of nectar, pollen, and host plants for pollinators visit xerces.org

Provide nesting sites

Nesting sites vary, and not all pollinators require nests. Birds, of course, do need nests, but hummingbirds don’t use nest boxes. We can provide shrubs and trees in which hummingbirds can nest.

Wild bees nest either in colonies like honeybees and bumblebees or as solitary individuals. Many nest in the ground or in cavities. Find pictures of and instructions for how to make bee nests in this downloadable document from Slow Food Upper Columbia

Provide overwintering sites

Insect pollinators can spend the winter in a variety of life stages (egg, larva, pupa, or adult), which vary depending on the species. All need sheltered areas in which to spend the winter. Leave undisturbed patches of habitat with leaf litter, standing dead twigs/stems, or other ground cover. Let some of your yard go un-manicured; these areas will provide the protected nooks and crannies that pollinators need to survive.

Habitat that is safe, and free from pesticides

Keep your cat indoors: cats are very efficient predators when hummingbirds feed on flowers that grow close to the ground. Pollinators don’t survive well around pesticides, but a new type of pesticide, neonicotinoids (different types are sold under a variety of labels), have been found to be particularly toxic. They became popular because they appeared to be less harmful to mammals than other pesticides. Some unintended consequences were discovered. In 2013, about 50,000 bumblebees died in a Portland suburb after 55 linden (basswood) trees were sprayed with dinetofuran, a neonicotinoid, to control aphids. Tragically, this occurred during National Pollinator Week, and an unfortunate irony was that the company that manufactured the pesticide was a sponsor of National Pollinator Week.

Do you like tomatoes and/or huckleberries?

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees and some other native pollinators are very effective at pollinating these plants because they “buzz pollinate” by rapidly moving their flight muscles, which increases pollen yield. Search for YouTube videos on buzz pollination for some really intriguing videos!

Fewer species of bees means less fertilization. Decreasing the number of bumblebee species allowed the remainder to be less picky: they visited a wider variety of plants and carried pollen from many plant species. Thus, the chance of carrying the right pollen to fertilize a particular plant species decreased, and pollination rates decreased.

Grab Your Camera… Bumblebee Watch is Here!

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation launched a new web site to help identify and protect bumblebees. Bumblebeewatch.org enables people to connect with experts and other enthusiasts, and help build a comprehensive picture of where bumblebees are thriving and where they are not.

Furry, hardworking bumblebees are essential to wildlands, gardens, and farms, helping to deliver food security for both people and wildlife alike. Alarmingly, many recent reports suggest that we may be losing their familiar buzz from our summer landscapes due to habitat loss, insecticide use, disease, and climate change. More information is needed to determine their conservation status, and that process demands a continent-wide collaborative effort.

You only need a smartphone or simple digital camera (and a computer… also available at your county library) to start contributing to BumbleBeeWatch.org. In addition to uploading photos of bumblebees, you can identify the bumblebees you’ve seen, learn about their ecology, and connect with bumble bee experts and other citizen scientists engaged in pollinator conservation.

The information gathered will help locate rare or endangered populations, as well as track species whose status is less well known. Last year, several people in northeast Washington participated in an early version and found two western bumblebees, a species that had been common but now is rare or absent from many areas of Western Washington.

This article was adapted from a flyer developed by Chris Loggers, Colville National Forest, and Slow Food Upper Columbia in March 2014. Download the complete document.