Penn State Master Gardeners Alice Simmons and Steve Lentz monitor pollinator preference plants at John C. Rudy County Park in York County. Photo: Penn State
When it comes to the importance of bees, Connie Schmotzer does not mince words.
"Without bees, the world's food supply would be cut drastically, threatening the survival of many plants, animals and humans," said the Penn State Extension Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture educator. "Life, as we know it, would be much different -- and not for the better."
Her concern stems from a very real -- and dire -- prognosis for bees, one that she and Master Gardeners across the state are helping to remedy through their Pollinator Preferences and Pollinator-Friendly Garden Certification programs.
To emphasize how much trouble bees are in, Schmotzer shared what she called an "alarming" statistic from the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which estimates that more than 700 native bee species in North America and Hawaii -- close to a fourth of the population -- are declining.
Closer to home, Pennsylvania beekeepers reported a loss of 52 percent of their European honeybee colonies in 2017, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As to why pollinators are declining, most experts agree that the cause is complex. Poor nutrition, loss of habitat, overuse of pesticides, parasites, disease and a changing climate all contribute.
Schmotzer believes everyone should be concerned about bees because they, along with other pollinators, are responsible for 78 percent of all flowering plants and many of the most nutritious food crops. Apples, tomatoes, grapes, broccoli, strawberries, onions, green beans, coffee, hazelnuts and watermelon are a smattering of the foods that come from pollinators' handiwork.
"Pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of our food," she said.
Penn State Master Gardeners' initiatives to help to restore bee populations include the Pollinator Preference Program, which guides homeowners and gardeners on the best flower varieties to attract and support pollinators because, Schmotzer noted, not all plants are alike when it comes to providing bees with the pollen and nectar they need.
"Just because a flower is vibrant in color and full of petals doesn't necessarily mean that it provides good food for bees," she said.
From 2012 to 2015 -- the first series of trials -- Master Gardeners across Pennsylvania monitored three plants and their cultivars weekly for pollinator visitation. These plants were anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Helen's flower (Helenium autumnale) and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana). Results showed that in some cases, pollinators preferred the native species, but in others, they preferred the cultivar.
The success of that monitoring led to another three-year trial, which is now in its final year. This time, Master Gardeners in 31 counties are evaluating the attractiveness of three Monarda and Coreopsis varieties, which many people know as bee balm and threadleaf tickseed, respectively.
The information gleaned from those studies has been useful in supporting the Pollinator-Friendly Garden Certification Program, an endeavor started in 2011 to educate home gardeners about how to create safe havens for pollinators. A how-to guide is located on the Pollinator Garden Certification website. Qualifying gardens can purchase a decorative Pollinator-Friendly Garden sign.
Since the program's inception, more than 750 gardens have been certified in 57 counties. The gardens range in size from very small urban plots to large public gardens.
"The number of certified gardens in the state is incredible, with more on the way," Schmotzer said. "It's reassuring to know that many citizens share our concern for bees and other pollinators. What's even better is that groups from across the country have taken notice and are asking for our advice and guidance on how to start their own programs."
The Master Gardeners work hand-in-hand with the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research, a multidisciplinary group of researchers, educators, extension specialists and outreach coordinators committed to pollinator conservation.
"The Master Gardeners are critical for translating the work done at our pollinator research center into real-world recommendations and solutions for people interested in helping pollinators," said the center's director, Christina Grozinger, Distinguished Professor of Entomology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
"Their pollinator garden program is one of the most successful in the country, and we are the envy of many other states because of it. With their knowledge, enthusiasm and broad distribution across Pennsylvania, the Master Gardeners are amazing partners in research projects and are making a difference."
For more information about Penn State Master Gardeners' efforts related to pollinators, visit the Center for Pollinator Research.