"Gimme a Bee” – Celebrate National Pollinator Week
Posted: June 17, 2011
The full flowering of summer now is a harbinger of harvests to come, but only if pollinators do their job. Do you like chocolate, coffee, tea, almonds, blueberries, apples, cantaloupes, or cherries? How about vanilla ice cream, a glass of cold milk or a juicy grilled steak? Without pollinators, working directly and indirectly, all of these foods that we love would not exist and we would be living on a diet akin to “bread and water.”
Pollination is an essential component of not only a healthy natural ecosystem but also of our agricultural production system. It is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of a flower and is necessary for the production of complete fruit and fertile seed.
Worldwide, approximately 75% of the 250,000 flowering plant species rely on animals for pollination. Many of our most commonly cultivated crops are animal-pollinated; this includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also fibers such as cotton and flax, beverages such as coffee and tea, spices and flavorings, and legume forage plants for livestock.
Many different species of animals around the world, about 200,000 all told, act as pollinators. Some are larger animals such as birds, flying foxes, bats, opossums, lemurs, rodents, and even a few lizards; but the vast majority of pollinators are small invertebrates – insects such as flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, and most importantly, bees. In fact, one-third of our diet comes directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants.
A Cornell University study estimated the value of insect-pollinated crops in the United States to be $15 billion a year; if you include products that rely indirectly on insect pollination, such as milk and beef from cattle fed on alfalfa, that value rises to as much as $40 billion. In addition to the contributions of managed honeybees, wild native bees also perform valuable pollination in orchards, field crops, and home gardens.
And if the existence of chocolate, or of an apple picked from your own tree, is not enough to convince you of the importance of pollinators, consider that pollination is a critical process in preserving the health and diversity of natural ecosystems upon which we rely for clean air and clean water.
The ability of plants to successfully reproduce through pollination is fundamental to a healthy ecosystem; thus the value of pollinators is much greater than the economic impact measured in dollars. Pollinators support plant communities that provide food and shelter for many other animals; fruits and seeds are a major component in the diet of many animals; and a diverse community of healthy plants helps to retain soil, prevent erosion, conserve natural resources, and preserve clean water.
Pollinators are “keystone” species that form the basis of an energy-rich food web; without them, land ecosystems would gradually fall apart and potentially collapse, much to our detriment. And now pollinators are in trouble, due to disease and pest problems, the spread of invasive species, and our habits of land use, habitat destruction, and pesticide overuse.
Rachel Carson wrote that “These insects, so essential to our agriculture and indeed to our landscape as we know it, deserve something better from us than the senseless destruction of their habitat.” Indeed they do, and every one of us can help pollinators, first by learning to understand and appreciate their importance, and then by preserving and protecting these vital animals.
Penn State Extension Master Gardeners are leading the way with their Pennsylvania Pollinator Friendly Garden certification program. To find out more about pollinators, pollinator plants, and the steps you can take to certify your garden as pollinator friendly, visit http://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/public-outreach/cert.