Precious Pollinators

Story by Jill McSheehy

Photo by Johnny Sain

The eastern sun warmed my back. Droplets glistened on adolescent tomato leaves. Melodies of the birds tickled my ears. Ordinarily, I would have soaked in the iconic morning every gardener looks forward to, steaming coffee in hand. 

But this was no ordinary morning. And I needed both hands free.

I made a beeline (pun intended, for reasons you’ll soon discover) for the sunshine-colored squash blossoms in their glory. Examining each one, I identified a few female blossoms by the baby fruit at their base. Then my eyes rested on the male blossoms, much more numerous and obvious. I chose one of those and snapped off the flower. Peeling away the yellow petals, I found the female blossom and rubbed pollen from the male anther onto the female stigma. After repeating this action on each female blossom and tossing the remaining male flower to my begging hens, I straightened up and narrowed my eyes at the honeybee hive just twenty feet away.

Where were the bees? Oh, I saw the honeybees from our new hive in a frenzy of springtime activity, but nary a one could be found in my vegetable garden. 

Here I was in their stead, hand-pollinating my squash. Every morning. For a week.

Thankfully, this unwanted morning ritual only lasted a week. Native bumblebees and a few rogue honeybees finally showed up a week late — better late than never. 

But after I posted a video of hand-pollination on Instagram, messages flooded my inbox from people who had similar problems. Many weren’t as lucky as I was and had to hand-pollinate most of the season.

Where were the bees?

Most of us know about the decline in the European honeybee population — commonly referred to as colony collapse disorder — but most people do not realize that native bees are the more efficient pollinators and the ones our crops and flowering plants rely more heavily upon. 

Most native bees, unlike the European honeybee, make their nests in the ground. Others nest in wood or dead plant stems. But when we douse our lawns with fertilizers and herbicides, or when we make a clean sweep of our flowerbeds and gardens at the end of the year, we threaten the very ones we depend on for pollination. 

We also add to the stress on native bees by clearing out “weeds” whose flowers native bees depend on for pollen and nectar, like goldenrods and dandelions. 

Personally, I had no idea of the complexity behind the decline of pollinators and insects in general until I read Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s new book, Nature’s Best Hope. I naively thought if I just planted more flowers I’d attract more bees.

In a sense, I wasn’t wrong. But the solution to the declining insect population isn’t so simple. It takes an understanding of the wider ecosystem and how different parts of the food web fit together. Admittedly, this is an understanding I lack, as does most of the general population without an ecology background or education. 

But that’s no excuse. 

We can’t afford to relegate an issue that affects every human on this planet to the academics. Each of us can do something in our own backyards. 

What can we do, then? I’m going to borrow from the research-backed wisdom of Dr. Tallamy:

Shrink the lawn. Lawns do not support local ecosystems. Replace a portion of your lawn with native trees (like oaks), shrubs (like blueberries), flowers (like sunflowers), and groundcovers (like coreopsis).

Remove invasive, non-native plants, and replace them with native species. Non-native plants support fewer insects (91% fewer according to one study). These are the insects that support our birds, and native bees rely more heavily on native flowering plants. For example, when you replace burning bush with blueberry bushes, you support native insects, get similar striking fall foliage, and can harvest berries as a bonus! 

Plant for specialist pollinators. Many native bees are “specialists,” requiring specific flowering plants, but generalist pollinators like honeybees also benefit. Some of the best plants for these specialist pollinators include perennial sunflowers, goldenrods, native willows, asters, and blueberries.

Do not spray or fertilize. Herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers can harm insects or the surrounding environment, not to mention other environmental fallout and human health repercussions. Plus, the “weeds” we kill like dandelions and clover are plants our bees depend on. 

Until last season when I spent a week of mornings hand-pollinating my squash, I didn’t realize the true issue of our declining insect populations. Thankfully, my problem righted itself, and I saw more native bees throughout the season. But you can bet I will be taking steps to support those bees in 2020 — not just for my own yard, garden, and squash, but for the small piece of the world I steward. 

You can read more from Dr. Doug Tallamy in his book, Nature’s Best Hope, releasing February 4, 2020. I was honored to read an advanced copy, and this book ranks among the top few worldview-changing books I have ever read.l