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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Nature Observation Through the Seasons: June - Pollinators: Small, But Mighty

May 28, 2021 09:31AM ● By Natasha Herr
As more and more people become aware of how important it is to encourage healthy habitats in our backyards and community spaces, we are more and more often hearing the word pollinator. A pollinator is an important component of a healthy ecosystem.

Most of us can name at least a few pollinator species. The honey bee, for example, is a vital component in the production of certain crops and flowers. The monarch butterfly, beloved for its beauty and awe-inspiring migration habits, is dependent upon the milkweed plant family for both food and habitat. Lesser known by most people is the fact that ants pollinate some of the plants and trees native to this area. In addition, there are hundreds of other pollinator species doing their important work each growing season, unassuming and often hidden from the human eye.

Pollen is the male genetic material of a plant. Located in the flower, it is also the substance that instigates sneezing for those that suffer from allergies in the spring. Pollen can travel via wind, water, insect or animal, and pollination refers to the process that allows plants to reproduce by sharing their genetic material with one another.

The plant world has developed endless relationships with other species around the need for pollination. Plants have evolved with animals, insects and forces of nature to help them move their genetic material around. The animals and insects that fulfill these relationships with plants are called pollinators. By understanding more about these relationships, we can also get a better glimpse of how our living landscape is intertwined.

Between 75 and 95 percent of all the flowering plants over the entirety of the Earth rely on pollinator species for survival. The honey bee is used often as an example because it is so important to our food production system: it’s been said that one in three bites of our food at each meal is owed directly or indirectly to the pollination work of the honey bee. Their bodies are covered in stiff hairs that act like a magnet for pollen, which they carry from flower to flower as they travel.

Ants are also a pollinator species. Wild Ginger (asarum canadense) is one of many plants that has seeds covered in elaisosome, a fleshy, nutrient rich cover on a plants’ seeds. Ants love them for it, so they carry their seeds back into their nests, and after eating the outer layer, leave the seeds in their discard piles. Deep in these nests, the seeds are protected and nurtured by what we might call the ant’s compost; then more plants grow. Paw Paw trees are also native to the region. Both have an unusual and profound beauty seen in their deep red flowers, and edible plant parts or fruits.

Birds can be pollinators too. Hummingbirds are unique in so many ways, and since they only exist in the Western Hemisphere, we are lucky to be able to witness them in our local environments. Their rapid wing beats burn a lot of calories, meaning they need to drink a lot of nectar daily, up to twice their body weight. Their long beaks and tongues allow them to pick up pollen as they travel from flower to flower. The same is true of bats, and more than 300 species of fruit depend on them for pollination.

Pollinator species come in many forms including birds and bees, small mammals, butterflies, moths and even flies. Unfortunately, pollinator populations have been in decline for decades. The loss of habitat, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the lack of areas for nesting—all of these things combined have hit these important species hard. Yet they are resilient, and they are one of the most powerful forces to help bring balance back to our larger, wild communities.

For those of us working to build awareness around, and habitat for, native plants, working to support pollinators is absolutely essential. The work we do planting native wildflowers, shrubs and trees gives pollinator species more habitat to exist in and more pollen and seeds to subsist on and to carry into the world. Our world depends on these tiny communities to support our larger ones, and we can all make simple changes in our lives and habits to ensure their populations thrive and grow into the future.

Nature Awareness Prompts for June

Each month in these articles, I’ll include a few nature awareness and observation prompts to help us tune into the season and the environment around us. These could include thoughts and ideas to look up and research, things to notice in the natural world according to the seasons, tips and methods for encouraging biodiversity and healthy local ecosystems and/or species and locales to observe.

Add one native plant to your landscape. You may remember this prompt from previous months, but here’s a new take on it. Seek out a native plant variety and add it to your landscape.

Focus on finding a native plant that has a relationship with local pollinator species and observe to see which ones appeal. The milkweed plant family (Asclepias species) and monarch butterflies are a pairing you might be able to witness in your own backyard. Joe Pye weed (eutrochium purpureum) and the swallowtail butterfly is another great example. Look for nurseries that carry plants free of neonicotinoid pesticides, a type of chemical pesticide toxic to insects.

Find a mud dauber nest and observe it. Mud daubers are a kind of wasp and are often misunderstood because of it; however, their temperament is very docile and they are often overlooked as a pollinator species. While they do eat insects and feed them to their young, adults also rely on nectar. Organ pipe mud daubers are an all-black native wasp that make a really iconic nest often seen on buildings, barns and park shelters. The nests look like rows of small, sculpted, clay tubes. Give them space, but if you see them building those unique structures, you can also hear that they sing while they work.

Natasha Herr has more than 15 years of experience as a naturalist, earth care professional, writer and community educator. Her passion is helping adults and children strengthen their connection to the natural world. Connect with her on Facebook @natasha.herr.927, [email protected]_tucker717 or by email at [email protected]. More of her work can be found at NatashaTucker.org.