Written by: Breeka Lí Goodlander, CWS, Town of Franklin, MA
“Save the Bees,” “Pollinator Patch,” and a myriad of other slogans are common-place today. One can’t travel far without seeing a sign denoting an area as a “Pollinator Friendly Patch” or shop at their local garden store without seeing seeds marketed for pollinators. So, what’s the buzz and what do we need to consider when planting a garden or restoring habitat for pollinators?
What is a Pollinator?
A Pollinator is any creature that helps carry pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of the same or another flower according to the National Parks Service, such as bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, birds, flies, and bats. This movement of pollen must occur for the plant to become fertilized. For some plants, the only way they can become fertilized is via the movement of these insects and animals. Through this unique relationship and transfer of pollen, pollinators maintain the function and diversity of natural ecosystems.
Not unlike humans, pollinators exhibit cultural and regional differences. What a bee prefers is not always what a butterfly or a bat prefers. When choosing vegetation for your garden or restoration area, be sure to selectively choose plants that will provide different forage and habitat for your target pollinator species. Creating a successful habitat entails planting an area that provides diversity in bloom times, food sources (i.e. nectar, pollen), and shelter or nesting material.
For example, beetle pollinated flowers are usually large, greenish or off-white in color, and heavily scented. Fly pollinated plants mimic dead animals or dung, are often brown or orange in color, and have a strong, unpleasant odor. Flowers attractive to hummingbirds tend to be large, odorless red or orange tubes with a plethora of diluted nectar secreted throughout the day. Butterfly pollinated flowers tend to be large, scented, showy, pink or lavender in color, and frequently have a landing area. Since most butterflies do not digest pollen, these flowers often contain more nectar than pollen as a reward. Lastly, bee pollinated flowers tend to be white, yellow, or blue and often have ultraviolet nectar guides. These plants offer nectar, pollen, or both as a reward for their hardworking visitors.
Why are pollinators the “bee’s knees” and why do we need them?
So Now we understand that planting for our target pollinator species is important, but why does it matter? In 2006, entomologists John Losey and Mace Vaughn identified the economic value of the ecosystem services provided by insects specifically. They estimated that insects, excluding honey bees, provide $72 billion annually to our global economy in four distinct sets of services: pollination, waste decomposition, pest control and food for game and wildlife species. For example, honey bees alone are directly responsible for between $251 and $617 billion (inflation adjusted) worth of food produced and sold in global markets annually. If we consider the annual contributions of non-managed native bees, we receive an additional benefit of $4 billion (inflation adjusted) worth of food production. Insects and other arthropods are also important for pest control. On an annual basis, these helpful critters are estimated to provide $5.73 billion worth in pest control, excluding the cost savings from not having to purchase, use and store pesticides according to Losey and Vaughn. Considering that approximately 57% of biological life on the planet is insects, weighing about 1 gigaton, there is a huge service to be benefitted from for free. These calculations don’t even consider the pollinating services provided by birds and small mammals. Imagine these numbers if these other species were included!
Scientists Dr. Kearns and Dr. Inouye propose in their 1997 paper, “Pollinators, Flowering Plants, and Conservation Biology,” any disruption of this special pollinator-plant relationship will ultimately lead to the extinction of these necessary ecosystem services and processes. It is imperative that pollinators are supported so their services are maintained now and in the future.
How do we go about maintaining these services? An example from Massachusetts
Here in Franklin, MA the municipal government designed a Biodiversity and Buffer Zone Restoration Project for approximately 8,600 square feet, a portion of which is a disturbed wetland buffer zone, at the DelCarte Conservation Area. The goal was to increase the biodiversity of the native pollinator-plant system via the revegetation of native flowering plants with different bloom times and source types for three native at-risk bumblebee (Bombus spp.) species. By protecting established native vegetation, removing existing invasive vegetation, and revegetating with 27 additional native shrubs, trees, and herbaceous species, we hope this area will provide nectar and pollen sources throughout the entire growing season for the at-risk species. The area will also support 19 other butterflies including the Eastern monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), and other insects, large and small mammals, and terrestrial and water birds.
Some of the proposed native vegetation includes Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Greater St. John’s Wort (Hypericum majus), Spotted St. John’s Wort (Hypericum punctatum), Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), and Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). We will also use a Conservation/Wildlife Seed Mix which includes Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (andropogon gerardii), Red Fescue (Festuca rubra), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), Showy Ticktrefoil (Desmodium canadense), Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberose), Beggar Ticks (Bidens frondosa), Spotted (purple) Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpuream), Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Heath/Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus), and Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea). For more information regarding species-specific attributes and interactions please see this table.
An additional 400 sf of this project is dedicated to creating a designated Turtle Nesting Habitat for the local painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), both of which also provide their own ecosystem services in their own right.
Through this project, the Town of Franklin aims to educate the public on the importance of pollinators, their services, and how to best preserve their functions for the future.