Weekly Gardening Tips: Pollinators

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By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

Yesterday, late afternoon, I sat outside and watched the “Flight of the Bumblebees” in real life. Actually, they were carpenter bees, but still a type of bumblebee.

Today, I watched a YouTube video of the musical composition by Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, written in 1900 with the same title. It was pretty obvious that he had watched the same seemingly manic spectacle himself!

In recent years the population of bumblebees has grown dramatically as the presence of “feral” honeybees has dropped just as dramatically. We don’t know exactly why wild honeybee populations have declined so dramatically, but if they are being replaced by bumblebees, that is OK with me!

Although carpenter bees don’t make honey like their European cousins, they are actually much better pollinators than honeybees for many native and cultivated garden plants, including blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, raspberries, strawberries, melons and cranberries. They are the only known pollinator of potatoes worldwide. Some greenhouse vegetable operations use them for this purpose exclusively.

The carpenter bees also drill some perfectly round holes in the fascia boards of my shed, which is not such a good thing, but I have decided to put up with it. They are also rather gentle, despite their constant buzzing in my face as I worked.

I was on a ladder putting up a section of aluminum gutter to collect rain water from my shed roof and as I did so, I covered up a couple of their holes with the gutter and despite my banging away with a hammer and sealing off their nest entrance, none of the half dozen bumblebees attacked me. Try banging on a honeybee hive with a hammer and see what happens!

For years, we have been told that if it were not for honeybees, we would all starve due to lack of pollination of our food crops. This is not true, since most of our major food crops, i.e. corn, wheat, rice and soybeans, are either wind- or self-pollinated and need no insect help at all.

It is true that honeybees are extremely important pollinators and are capable of pollinating about one-third of all our food crops, but the only crop that relies on them exclusively for pollination are almonds. About 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California and they rely completely upon honeybees. I like almonds very much, but could certainly live without them if they went away.

Pollination is defined as the transfer of pollen from the male organ of a flower (anther) to the female organ (pistil), enabling fertilization and subsequent seed or fruit development. This may be accomplished by wind or by third parties — insects with hairy bodies, generally. Pollen adheres to these hairy bodies and since the male and female flower parts are usually, but not always, within the same flower, the transfer is pretty efficient.

Although birds, bats and other creatures are capable of pollination, the vast majority is accomplished by various types of insects, including several different kinds of bees, but also butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps and flies. Honeybees represent a tiny fraction of the approximately 3,600 species of bees in the U.S. and Canada alone. Most bee species, about 90% of them, are “solitary,” which means they don’t make communal nests.

Bumblebees are very efficient pollinators since they are capable of flying and foraging at much cooler temperatures and lower light levels than other insects. Their “buzzing” activity also improves pollen accumulation and transfer with the vibration they create.

Most wasps and hornets are also excellent pollinators, except for the smooth-bodied ones, with no hairs, i.e. yellow jackets. They are important predators of many insect pests though and most don’t deserve the bad reputation that some of them have for stinging.

Whether beneficial or not, I draw the line at tolerating yellow jackets or bald-faced hornets close to where I happen to be. I will continue to kill them and prevent them from nesting, since the risk to my health outweighs the need to protect them for their ecological services.

Many species of beetles are also pollinators that have been on the job for at least the last 150 million years or so. One out of every four living organisms that have ever been described on this planet, from fungi and bacteria, to mammals and birds, is a species of beetle. They pollinate many ancient species of plants, from magnolias to water lilies.

So, if you have heard about how important it is for us to protect and preserve all sorts of pollinators, as is currently in vogue, consider allowing some bumblebees to drill a few holes in your shed fascia boards and enjoy watching them dance. Then, watch the “Flight of the Bumblebee” on YouTube. I bet you will be humming the melody for the rest of the day!

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