By Joshua Fuder
If you remember back to elementary school science, you’ll remember that pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of the same or a different flower. Some plants, like grasses and pine trees, rely on wind, gravity, a sheer quantity of pollen, and a little luck for pollination and viable fertilization to occur. Pollination causes many people to be riddled with allergy problems this time of year and leaves a dull-yellow patina on vehicles.
Other plants have evolved over the millennia into a more specialized form of pollination to include things like colorful flowers, pleasing aromas, or tasty nectar to lure insects, birds, and mammals to do this work for them. For most of the fruits and vegetables that we enjoy, pollination is done by insects such as flies, moths, butterflies, wasps, and bees. Without insect pollinators, we would lose the ketchup and mustard on our hamburgers, and the dessert menu would be without strawberry and chocolate ice cream. Even worse, we would eventually be reduced to wearing polyester or — heaven forbid — spandex, as insects are critical in the production of cotton.
A 2014 economic impact study by the University of Georgia determined that the annual value of pollination to Georgia is more than $360 million. A similar nationwide study, released by the White House in June 2014, estimated that insect pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy. Pollination is just as critical to our agriculture as rainfall and soil fertility.
Pollinators, bees in particular, have suffered declining populations in recent years. The decline of pollinators is caused by loss of habitat, simplification of agricultural and suburban landscapes, pests and diseases that affect domesticated pollinators, and the use of pesticides.
Pollinators need help, and the average homeowner can help to improve the situation for these wonderful creatures simply by providing basic things that all creatures need to survive — food, water, and shelter.
Add pollinator plants to your landscape. Pollinator gardens are great, but we should look at the landscape in totality. Choose plants that flower at different times of the year to provide a continuous supply of nectar and pollen. Planting in clusters instead of single plants will attract more pollinators and provide a better aesthetic. Provide a variety of colors and flower shapes, and use native plants as much as possible.
Larger plants, such as flowering trees and shrubs, are also beneficial for pollinators. Shrubs that provide pollen and nectar include American beautyberry, glossy abelia, lacecap hydrangea, sweet spire, and fragrant tea olive. Pollinator friendly trees, such as black locust, chaste tree, sumac, cherry, crabapple, tulip poplar, catalpa, willow, magnolia, crepe myrtle, eastern redbud, and red maple, can be incorporated into landscapes. For more information, see UGA Extension Bulletin 1456, Eco-Friendly Garden: Attracting Pollinators, Beneficial Insects, and Other Natural Predators.
To help pollinators thrive in home landscapes, we need to provide them with water for drinking, evaporative cooling, and reproduction purposes. If there are no ponds or streams nearby, add a couple of birdbaths or shallow dishes of water in numerous locations for pollinators. Change the water often, or mosquitoes will use it to lay eggs. Treating birdbaths with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) “dunks” are a safe mosquito-control alternative that will not hurt pollinators or birds. Pebbles, small rocks, or floating corks can be added to the water to give pollinators a landing spot to drink from.
Provide nesting sites. Approximately 4,000 species of native bees exist in North America, and around 542 species live in Georgia, according to a current study. Native bees nest in the ground or in cavities like hollow stems or holes in wood.
Homeowners can find it challenging to provide native bee nest sites in our perfectly manicured lawns and landscapes. Ground-nesting bees prefer bare areas or sparse ground cover, and cavity-nesting bees look for dead limbs or trees. If it is not a safety concern, consider leaving a dead tree or limb undisturbed. If this is not possible, consider adding some native bee nests, which are simply small blocks of wood that can be drilled with ¼- to ½-inch holes that are 3 inches deep to provide a nest habitat. For more information, see UGA Extension Circular 1125, Creating Pollinator Nesting Boxes to Help Native Bees.
Avoid or limit pesticide use in your landscape. Pesticides can often lead to worse pest problems, as they kill predatory insects as well. A landscape with a variety of plants that are well adapted to our area is very pollinator friendly.