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Spreading The Magic Dust

Let’s get it out of the way up front. It’s all about sex… pollination, that is. Pollinators help plants reproduce. From the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) we learn, “Pollinators visit flowers in their search for food (nectar and pollen). During a flower visit, a pollinator may accidentally brush against the flower’s reproductive parts, unknowingly depositing pollen from a different flower. The plant then uses the pollen to produce a fruit or seed. Many plants cannot reproduce without pollen carried to them by foraging pollinators.”

Image 1: (1) Pollinator receives pollen from the male anther at the top of the stamen. (2) Pollen is deposited on the female stigma at the top of the carpel. (3) The pollen tube elongates from the pollen grain into the style and down to the ovules, resulting in fertilization and seed set. Credits: Harland Patch, Nick Sloff. (PennState Extension)

Pollinator Basics

Now that we know how it’s done, let’s move on. Bees, as in “the birds and the bees” are the most well known pollinators, while in fact, the job gets done by a range of creatures.

Pollinators

  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Flies
  • Syrphid Flies
  • Wasps
  • Beetles
  • Hummingbirds

These little buggers – creeping, flying, buzzing, stinging, flitting things – make the world go round. Another USGA site tells us, “Wherever flowering plants flourish, pollinating bees, birds, butterflies, bats and other animals are hard at work, providing vital but often-unnoticed services. About three-fourths of all native plants in the world require pollination by an animal, most often an insect, and most often a native bee.”

Here are three more elements that are important to the pollenating equation.

  • Nectar
  • Pollen
  • Foliage

Nectar is the sugary liquid, created by the plant, found at the base of flower petals. It provides pollinators with carbohydrates and other nutrients. Its purpose is to attract pollinators that, in turn, interact with pollen in their efforts to obtain the nectar.

Pollen is a fine powder made up of microspores produced by male plants. Pollen sticks to pollinators as they collect nectar. Plants are “pollinated” as pollinators travel from plant to plant.

Foliage, the lovely, colorful leafy parts of a plant, serve pollinators in two ways. Not only does foliage serve as breakfast, lunch and supper for caterpillars (which eventually turn to butterflies), but at the end of the growing season it dries and falls to the ground. This leaf litter provides habitat for insects. It also helps create a healthy soil community by providing organic matter and insulation.

Planning for Pollinators

Now that we have our terms in place, it is time for you to look at these lists. They come from usinggeorgianativeplants.blogspot.com, a site created and run by Ellen Honeycutt who lives in metropolitan Atlanta. She considers herself to be an average gardener with an above-average passion about it.

These lists are excellent planning tools to learn not only how pollinators interact with native plants, but which native plants will do well in our area. Each list provides the common and scientific name of Georgia native plants, the pollinator(s) that benefits from each plant, the bloom time and the growing conditions. Additionally, these lists will put you on the path to creating a succession landscape, one that is full of flowering perennials beginning in the spring and running into autumn.

Here are links to Ellen’s lists from her 2014 blog post.

Details and Resources

Here are some quick facts about the pollinators listed above with links to additional information.

Bees

An excellent site containing images and information on native Georgia bees is Bees of Georgia, presented by Georgia Gwinnett College. From squash bees to long haired bees to mining bees – just 3 of the 542 native bees in Georgia, the site provides details about size, type of flight and pollination value. While I am a tremendous fan of pollinators, I don’t like to look very closely at insects. I leave it to you to visit the site to view the extraordinary images of Georgia bees.

Beetles

Beetles as pollinators – wow! Who knew? “There are more different kinds of beetles on the planet than any other group of creatures. Beetles have been around for a very long time, hundreds of millions of years, in fact. Some beetles developed relationships with plants as specialized pollinators even before bees had appeared on the scene! Beetles are important pollinators in some habitats where bees are scarce, including some very arid areas.” (Discover Pollinators, https://discoverpollinators.org/all-about-pollinators/beetles/)

Image 2: Beetles of many different kinds visit flowers in large numbers; however, they mostly feed on the flowers, causing some damage, and don’t serve as efficient pollinators. Small longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae) on wild daisy by D. J. Martins

Butterflies

While Monarch butterflies get all the attention, Georgia is home to more than 160 butterfly species. According to Andrew Kness, “Adult lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) show little floral specialization, preferring flowers with large landing surfaces, deep, narrow corollas that can accommodate their elongated mouths, and plants displaying many flowers in close proximity.”

This neat, full color brochure on Georgia butterflies provides identified pictures of nearly 100 of them.

Flies

Flies. The kind of yucky insects that annoy us almost anytime or anyplace. But consider this. Flies are among the most frequent visitors to flowers and important pollinators of a wide range of plants. This Master Gardener site states, “The common housefly (Musca domestica), is just one species of fly in the huge order Diptera. There are 120,000 known species and still counting. …These Diptera species are the pollinators, performing a vital function for all of earth’s life. Among these essential tiny creatures are gnats, midges, no-see-ums, and, of course, a diverse assortment of flies.”

Image 3: Dogbane is a fly’s worst friend. Its flowers are designed to attract butterflies. “When these long-tongued pollinators visit the flowers of dogbane, their tongues become coated with a pollen and cement like mixture from the flower. Flies and weaker insects are not so lucky. These lightweight pollinators often become glued to the flower and die a slow death from starvation.” (USDA Forest Service) Photo by Brother Alfred Brousseau.

Syrphid flies

Syrphid flies. Huh? Syrphid flies, also known as hover flies, are members of the fly family. The U.S. Forest Service says, “Due to their black and yellow stripes syrphid flies can be easily mistaken for bees and wasps. The most identifiable differentiation can be seen in the wings. Flies have only one pair of wings while bees and wasps have two. Their large eyes and short antenna also give them away.”  

Image 4: Syrphid flies really shine in the garden when it comes to pest control. Females lay eggs on plants near or among aphid colonies. When the larvae hatch, they feed on aphids, mealy bugs, scale, thrips, and eggs. A single larva can eat 20 to 30 aphids a day and up to 400 during its development! (Illinois Extension) Male Sphaerophoria spp. Photo by Marcello Consolo, 2013.

Hummingbirds

The avian species on our list, hummingbirds, are beloved for their distinctiveness. Pollinator Partners shares the basics on hummingbirds. Flowers have evolved to entice hummingbirds. Elongated flowers hold more nectar and deter insects. Aromatic flowers are more appealing to insects; hummingbirds are attracted to color. Hummers visit dozens or hundreds of different flowers daily.

Image 5: Andrew Kness says, “Hummingbirds feed by day on nectar from flowers, including annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs and vines. Hummingbirds lap up nectar with their long tongues deploying their beak as a straw, and can lick 10-15 times per second while feeding.” Photo from pollinatorpartners.ksdot.org

Wasps

Wasps are in the same Order as bees; however, they “lack the body hairs that bees have to carry pollen and so are not as well equipped for carting pollen from flower to flower…Some gardeners don’t like Pollen Wasps since they destroy flowers as they look for nectar. … However, Pollen Wasps are predators of many insects, especially crop eating insects and so can be beneficial to gardeners and farmers.” –Wisconsin Pollinators

We at Art of Stone Gardening know that God is in the details. Without the pollinators that are out there every day during all seasons, life as we know it would cease. It is important to support these creatures and the native plants upon which they depend. Join us in creating sustainable landscapes that not only bring pleasure to our lives but that also support life on this precious planet.

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