Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Little Things That Make a Big Difference

By Sunny Healey, Silver Creek Preserve manager

While learning about pollinators, their importance and how we can help them, I thought of what John Muir said: “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world”. For example, from a leading cacao expert Allen Young: “A tiny fly no bigger than the head of a pin is responsible for the world's supply of chocolate.” The leaf-cutting bee (Megachile rotundata) is a solitary bee that is essential to the production of alfalfa, which contributes to the production of milk chocolate by feeding dairy cows.  

The work of pollinators is quite amazing, providing three quarters of our staple crops; 80 percent of flowering plants in the world require pollinators. Last year with the help of the WOW students from Wood River Middle School, we planted over 100 milkweed seedlings for Monarch butterflies and made hundreds of native wildflower seed bombs.  Helping pollinators is fun and serious business. The work of pollinators has been valued at over $90 billion a year, assuming we could do the job at all. 

Bee © Sunny Healey

A simple way to help pollinators is by doing nothing.  By leaving areas of bare soil, dead leaves, and brush piles and postponing spring clean-up, you are providing important overwintering shelter to butterflies, and ground nesting bees.  Many insects and birds migrate but the tiger swallowtail winters in its chrysalis, and anglewing butterflies and tortoiseshell butterflies overwinter as adults.  

Also, not spraying pesticides helps native pollinators.  We not only protect pollinators by refraining from using pesticides, but we protect natural predators like green lacewings which prey on mealybugs, psyllids, thrips, mites, whiteflies.  Leafhoppers and ladybugs, eat aphids at a rate of 5000/year. 

If you are feeling a little more ambitious, you can plant a native flower.  You could plant a few, or even an entire butterfly garden. We planted milkweed because the Monarch caterpillar depends on the plant. Widespread use of herbicides has greatly reduced the availability of milkweed across the country.  While Monarch butterflies prefer milkweed, they can get nectar from other flowers.  This is not the case for the caterpillar that relies solely on the milkweed plant for survival. 

The first few generations of Monarchs journey from Mexico to North America, each living about 3-4 months.  The fourth generation lives twice as long and flies all the way back to where the first one emerged in the forests of Michoacán, sometimes a journey of 3000 miles!  

Some other plants for a butterfly garden in Idaho: Scarlet’s globemallow attracts the common checkered skipper, chokecherry for the two-tailed swallowtail and violets for the great spangled fritillary. Consider incorporating plants such as broccoli or rose into your garden to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, which prey on aphids. 

By planting an array of colors and different sizes of flowers or diverse variety of crops, you can help provide for pollinators throughout the season.  Spring and fall are especially important: Drummond’s milkvetch and yellow bee plant for early spring and Indian paintbrush and rabbitbrush for late summer and fall. 
Flowers © Sunny Healey

Farmers know the value of pollination.  Last spring and summer we had a workshop to learn about pollinators and visited a local farm that is working on increasing pollinator habitat. This includes site preparation, weed and pest control, crop diversity, installing buffer zones with diversity of plant structure, and protecting water sources.  Some native bees are only able to fly 300ft before needing to refuel, so leaving native plant areas in corners or along fence lines and roads help provides forage and habitat corridors. This edge habitat can pollinate an entire crop. 

The Natural Resource Conservation Service via the USDA Farm Bill, The Xerces Society, The Nature Conservancy, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, the Pollinator Partnership and many others are all working to help pollinators.  There are free planting guides available and a lot of interesting, fun things to learn about the microcosms and world of pollinators and beneficial insects.  

 To find out more about the Monarch butterfly, visit this page.

With spring just around the corner it’s time to start thinking about what we’re going to plant in our own gardens! 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well written article on the importance of pollinators. I recently wrote a paper on honeybees and I find it frustrating that many people do not know the difference in their insects and think that every bug needs to be killed. Everything has a purpose and a important role in our ecology.