What is Pollination?
Pollination is how plants reproduce. It is performed through the transfer of pollen from the male part of the flower (the stamen) to the female part of the flower (the pistil). The base of the pistil (the ovary) turns into a fruit when it matures which holds and protects the seeds. The fruit can be juicy and sweet as in a peach or dry and hard like a cotton bur.
Plants may be pollinated by wind, water, or animals (i.e., pollinators). As a rule of thumb, flowers that are large and/or colorful are animal pollinated. Bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, moths are the heavy lifters of pollination. While we often reap the reward of their hard work, this service is not intended for our benefit.
Why are Pollinators Important?
Without pollinators, roughly 33% of our food plants would not exist and roughly 75% of flowering plants that form the natural ecosystems that stabilize the soil, filter rainwater and create our living environments would not exist.
Texas has a wide variety of pollinators outside of the well-known butterflies and bees. In Texas, you will see pollinators like bats, hummingbirds, wasps, flies, and beetles. The most iconic pollinator of Texas is the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs depend on milkweed plants to lay their eggs and as a source of food for their caterpillars. Milkweed plants are in decline causing an even bigger threat to the survival of Monarchs.
Pollinator Habitat and Sustenance
Pollinators need pollen for protein and nectar, a carbohydrate, for energy. In bee colonies, nectar is a regular daily food for worker and drone bees. The nectar is stored in their honeycomb before it is dehydrated and made into honey. Pollen is usually reserved for bee larvae and queen bees. Pollinators also need water and shelter. Insects have numerous stages in their life cycles and their needs change as they do.
Due to an increase in intensive agricultural monocultures and as suburban lawns became the new normal for our neighborhoods, the natural habitat of pollinators is in decline. As our landscapes become flowerless and our food production continues to rely on chemicals, pollinator species are in peril. A variety of pollinators have been affected, in the last ten years, we have seen colony collapse in honey bees and a 90% decline in Monarch butterflies.
How Can I Help?
There are several things you can do to help, but the number one way you can help is to commit to doing no harm.
If you are a landowner who's land is native grassland, you may already be providing a major service to pollinators. The benefit of rangeland has a high impact potential for providing natural habitat, but if the land is mismanaged the area may do more harm than good. Even on agricultural land that is already devoid of most pollinators, there is substantial harm that can be caused from pesticide drift.
Avoid agricultural pesticides whenever possible and avoid chemical treatments in urban lawns and gardens. These treatments remove beneficial insects along with the targeted pests and can lead to worse infestation following application. There are alternatives to these treatments including introducing insects that parasitize pest species, pheromone traps, and mating disruption pheromones. If you cannot avoid use of pesticides and other chemical treatments, implement an integrated pest management plan which may be established with assistance from your local Cooperative Extension Service.
Other ways you can avoid doing harm is to avoid overgrazing which is not good for you, your livestock, or pollinators. Implement prescribed burns within small patches, rotating areas over time to allow insect populations to recover. Avoid killing weeds that support insect populations and are actively defoliated by caterpillars. When possible, mow when plants are not blooming, mow slow, and mow high (12-16 inches).
Provide Habitat With Native Plants
Plant and maintain a diversity of host and nectar plants, preferably native, with overlapping bloom times. If you already have this diversity on your property, be less stringent when eliminating insect pollinated “weeds”, such as camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris), buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum), and evening primroses (Oenothera spp.; often known locally as buttercups). If you own farmland, you might consider setting aside a portion of your end rows for native habitat by allowing the wildflowers to grow or even planting them. You can also plant buffer strips. The key is to set aside areas where pollinator plants can thrive.
You can always learn more about what is going on with pollinators and the more in-depth strategies out there for helping them. Below are some resources that can help you learn about pollinators.