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Attract birds and bees to pollinate your landscape

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

When learning about "nature," certainly we've all heard about the birds and the bees. But what about the possums and the bats? It may at first seem as though birds, bugs, possums, bats and even lizards, wind and water have little in common, but their role as pollinators in the natural world is a common thread, one that makes possible the propagation of seed-producing plants.

Grasses, conifers, most shade trees and many wildflowers cast their fates to the wind when it comes to reproduction. The wind stirs pollen grains from one part of the flower to another, resulting in the formation of a seed.

Squash, fruit trees and most flowers are among the plants that depend on attracting the right bugs, birds and bats to move pollen from plant to plant to produce seed. Water carries pollen for aquatic plants.

More than 90 percent of all flowering plants and more than three-fourths of staple food crops rely on animal or insect pollinators, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reports that honeybees alone pollinate about $10 billion worth of crops in the United States every year. In fact, farms and orchards commonly rent honeybees from beekeepers for pollination stints.

Plants lure bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, bats and hummingbirds with the promise of nectar, a nourishing mix of water and sugars. As the creatures slurp up nectar, grains of pollen attach to their bodies. Pollinators can smell the nectar or see color patterns in the flowers that are invisible to the naked human eye, says Donna Danielson, a horticulturist at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., where she is the plant clinic assistant.

When it comes to winged creatures, bees rank No. 1 as pollinators, flitting from flower to flower, loaded with pollen grains. The native bumblebee, for instance, has specially made pollen baskets on its back legs for just this purpose.

North America has 3,000 to 4,000 species of native bees and about 99 percent of them, including carpenter bees, are solitary, meaning there's just one adult female in the nest with two or three offspring. "Social bees, such as the non-native honeybees, may have 60,000 bees or more in a nest," says Greg Hunt, associate professor of entomology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Solitary bees do not defend their nests by stinging. You don't want to kill them."


Because bees, butterflies and beetles have such a critical role in pollination, but they are fragile and can be killed by certain lawn and garden chemicals. "You need to be awful careful when using insecticides," says Michael Loos, a horticulture educator in the Cuyahoga County Extension Office in Cleveland. Heavy insecticide use also means fewer birds in the landscape because there are no bugs for them to eat. "Always read the label," he adds.

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Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a regional director of Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.

 

 


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