The birds and the bees: Protecting pollinators in the garden

By Sally Pearsall Ericson
Director of Marketing and Public Relations

Jack LeCroy, an Urban Regional Extension Agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, gave a presentation about pollinators as part of the 2019 Wonderful Wednesdays series at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Here are a few highlights from his presentation.

About three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators – birds, bats, bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects – in order to reproduce. However, pollinators are in trouble; their challenges include habitat loss, disease, parasites and environmental toxins.

The good news: There are several simple steps that gardeners can take to make life easier for these animals and insects. But first, here’s a general overview of how pollinators help plants, and vice versa.

Some plants are wind pollinated; others are water pollinated; and many plants have evolved to attract certain animals or insects in order to achieve pollination. Pollinators are conditioned to seek out certain floral cues, including the color and shape of the flower and its scent. Some flowers actually have a pattern that serves as a sort of runway to guide the pollinator to the plant’s reproductive parts.

Pollination occurs when the visiting animal or insect brushes against the flower, depositing pollen grains from the last flower it visited. The plant can then use the new pollen to produce a fruit or seed. It only takes one pollen grain to fertilize an ovule.

Pollinators are often highly attracted to plants that have small blooms, such as parsley, dill, celery and clover. Conversely, not all of the big, showy flowers are the best targets for pollinators.

Here are details about some of the most common pollinators:

Bees: There are many different types of bees, and they are the main pollinators for fruits and vegetables. Bees are intelligent, agile, and have good senses. Bee-pollinated flowers are usually colorful, and many have guides on their petals to help the bee find the flower’s nectar. Bees have the ability to see ultraviolet light, and some bee-pollinated flowers actually have evolved to produce ultraviolet guides, invisible to humans, which bees use as a guide to find their nectar.

Beetles: These pollinators are clumsy and have poor vision. Most are only active during the day. Beetles are the largest and most diverse set of pollinators, with many thousands of species.

Birds: In general, birds do not have a good sense of smell, so they tend to be attracted to plants with bright orange, red or yellow flowers and very little scent. The hummingbird is the most common avian pollinator in the United States, and their favorite flowers have evolved to produce long, tubular flowers in order to attract them.

Bats: Bats have a good sense of smell; they feed on flowers that open at night, and these blooms are usually white and fragrant. Bat-pollinated plants include bananas, mangoes and cactuses. Bats also feed on the insects that are attracted to these plants.

Moths: Moths have poor vision, but a great sense of smell. They are attracted to flowers that open at night. They have long, coiled tongues, and pollinate flowers that have evolved to grow long tubes with the nectar at the bottom.

How to protect pollinators

  • Think about the time of year when your plants bloom, and design your landscape to have flowers year-round.
  • Reduce or eliminate pesticides.
  • Remember that most bugs aren’t necessarily bad for the garden. Don’t automatically kill a bug just because you saw it on one of your plants.
  • Learn to accept periodic damage on plants that are meant to provide food for butterfly and moth larvae. Often, the damage from hungry caterpillars won’t completely kill the plant.
  • Provide clean water for pollinators with a shallow dish or birdbath — this helps support the whole life cycle.
  • Leave a few dead tree stumps or patches of decaying wood in the landscape to provide shelter for wood-nesting beetles and carpenter bees.

For additional information, contact Jack LeCroy at the Alabama Cooperative Extension Office: 251-574-8445 or jml0003@aces.edu.