Swallowtail butterflies

Swallowtail butterflies rest on butterflyweed. 

June is packed with opportunities to interact with wildlife and the outdoors. But can you imagine what the outdoors would be like without pollinators?

Pollinators — bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles are nearly as important as sunlight, soil and water to the reproductive success of more than 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants.

As a pollinator moves from flower to flower collecting nectar, they also move pollen from flower to flower. When pollen, from the male part of a flower, the stamen, falls on the stigma, or female part of a flower of the same species, it triggers the production of a seed or seeds.

Plants often help their specific pollinators find their way. Night-pollinated flowers close during the day, to shield their nectar and pollen. And, many daytime-pollinated flowers close at night for the same reason. Flowers pollinated at night are usually white or pale yellow and very fragrant to help announce their presence. Darker flowers, not as visible at night, are usually pollinated by daytime flying insects.

Bees prefer blue or yellow flowers and those that are sweet-smelling. Butterflies rely more on vision and less on scent to find nectar. They are attracted to red, yellow or orange flowers. Moths are attracted to sweet-scented flowers that are typically large and white or pale in color, Hummingbirds go for red, orange or yellow flowers.

Pollinators are crucial to the production of most fruits, nuts and berries that people and wildlife eat. More than 150 food crops in the United States depend on pollinators, including blueberries, apples, oranges, squash, tomatoes and almonds.

Worldwide, there are more than 100,000 different animal species that pollinate plants. Insects are the most common pollinators, but as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates — hummingbirds, perching birds, flying foxes, fruit bats, possums, lemurs and even a gecko — help to pollinate plants.

Despite their importance to our economy and our lives, many pollinators are in trouble.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) raised specifically to pollinate crops are declining. Causes include parasitic mites, disease, pesticide poisoning, the encroachment of Africanized honey bees and a phenomenon, Colony Collapse Disorder, where they leave the hive in search of nectar and do not return.

The causes of decline in wild pollinators vary by species. Like the honeybee, the bumblebee has been hurt by the introduction of a nonnative parasite carried by bumblebees imported from Europe. Other pollinators are have been affected by habitat loss or fragmentation, such as the destruction of cave roosts for some bats. Disturbances in migratory routes can also disturb populations of hummingbirds, nectar-feeding bats and some butterflies.

A healthy ecosystem provides pollinators with habitat for foraging, nesting, roosting and mating. Homes, businesses and roads are replacing the native fields, wetlands and forests that are home to many pollinators. In addition, many of the wildflowers used by pollinators for food, nesting or egg-laying are rapidly disappearing.

Another cause is the spread of invasive plant species, which are not only an  unsuitable source of food for pollinators but crowd out the native plants that these creatures have depended on for centuries.

In addition to harmful pests, the misuse of insecticides takes out beneficial pollinators.

You can help, though:

• Reduce the use of pesticides or, if possible, stop using them altogether. If you must use an insecticide, apply it in the evening when many pollinators are inactive.

• Plant gardens filled with native, nectar-producing flowers. Visit pollinator.org and type in your zip code to learn about pollinators in your area plus a list of their favorite plants.

There is no time like the present to start: National Pollinator Week is June 19–25 this year.

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

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