AIKEN MASTER GARDENERS: Supporting pollinators supports crops and flowers

The blueberries are blooming and a multitude of bees are buzzing as they forage in the bushes. I look for the southern blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa) among the pollinators. This solitary bee is considered to be the most efficient pollinator of southern rabbit-eye blueberries because the flowers require buzz pollination, and H. laboriosa is one of the few bees that exhibit this behavior. I see honeybees, honeybees and bumblebees. I am grateful that these bees and other pollinators have found my garden.

North Carolina State Extension notes that each healthy blueberry plant produces thousands of buds each year. Each flower is a potential berry. Blueberry pollen is sticky and relatively heavy, so it is not easily carried by the wind like pine pollen. In order to bear fruit, the flowers of a blueberry plant must be pollinated by insects. Native bees such as the blueberry solitary bee are important native pollinators of blueberry plants and also essential to the production of many other fruits, vegetables and flowers.

In fact, more than 40% of flowering plants in North America require insect pollination. Many native species, such as bumblebees, large, hairy, black and yellow insects, feed on and pollinate particular types of plants. Miner bees pollinate azaleas. Mason bees, a large family with more than 600 species in North America, carry pollen on their abdomens instead of their legs and build their nests in wood cavities or hollow branches. Beetles and flies are also pollinators. Beetles are prominent pollinators of our beautiful magnolias.

It is true that some insects have undesirable qualities. Only 1% of insects are nuisance pests, and even those insects serve some desirable purpose, aiding in decomposition or preying on other harmful insects. Sweat bees pollinate peaches, but are attracted to human sweat. Carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica) can destroy wooden structures. If you are faced with a problem insect, remember that beneficial insects are not harmed by indiscriminate actions. For example, trap carpenter bees without resorting to chemical spray. See Clemson HGIC for guidelines on creating a simple trap.

I’m not a fan of wasps like mud wasps, paper wasps, yellow jackets and hornets. I’ve learned to look for signs. When I see a red wasp or yellow jacket nearby, I look for the nest to destroy it when the wasps are less active.

Why not just use pesticides? The short answer is that pesticides are poison, and we use too many of them without knowing much about the long-term health effects, especially in combination with each other and with other chemical exposures. Home and garden pesticide applications account for more pesticide use per acre than agriculture. Integrated pest management begins with identification. If we understand an insect’s habits, damage can often be avoided. Is this insect really a nuisance? Is a chemical needed to solve this problem? If chemical applications are warranted, read the label and follow the instructions to the letter.

Although they are all pollinators, some may not love bees, wasps, beetles and flies, but most agree that butterflies are beautiful. When we plant a pollinator garden, we usually want to attract butterflies even though this is not a particularly efficient pollinator. Butterflies don’t vibrate like bees to shake off the pollen, nor do they fly fast or visit as many flowers. Even so, we would do well to attract more monarchs, swallowtails, skippers, brimstone butterflies and moths to gardens. The Xerces Society and the USDA actively offer educational programs to protect pollinators like the monarch butterfly.

Consider planting natives such as milkweed to attract this desirable monarch. Native plants have evolved over time to have a mutually beneficial relationship with native wildlife. Because natives are adapted to local soils and weather conditions, they have a symbiotic relationship with local pollinators. The Carolina Native Plant Society and Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center offer a wealth of resources to help homeowners interested in native plants. Check out the Clemson HGIC for additional information on planting pollinator gardens.

The next lecture in the Master Gardener Lunchbox Series will also provide information on the relationships between native plants and pollinators. Michaela Berley of Cold Creek will talk about using native plants to attract pollinators in the garden at Millbrook Baptist Church at noon on Friday, March 17. In addition, the upcoming Aiken Master Gardeners plant sale in mid-April will offer native plants for sale.

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