Pollinators Are Essential to Our Existence

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Have you hugged a honeybee today? Well, probably not and you probably shouldn’t, but honeybees are the primary of many animal species that do an essential job for us – pollinating plants. Without pollination we wouldn’t have many of the vegetables, fruits and nuts that we enjoy every day. June is National Pollinator Month. This time is designated to make people aware how important pollinators are to our existence and to bring awareness to the protection of our pollinator species.

Over 30% of our food and fiber crops require some form of pollination from animals – primarily honeybees. Cherries and blueberries rely on honeybees for 90% of their pollination needs, while almonds rely on honeybees entirely for pollination. There are over 1.3 million acres of almonds in California alone. Apples, Henderson County’s number one food crop also relies on adequate honeybees to produce a crop. About one in every four mouthfuls of food we eat is produced as a result of pollinators.

So, what’s so important about pollination? Well, many plants require the pollen they produce on the stamen of the flower to be physically transferred to the stigma of the flower. Once the pollen is on the stigma, a pollen tube grows down to the ovules of the flower and fertilizes the ovules which develop into seeds and the ovary of the flower grows into a fruit to protect the seeds.

This pollen transfer is done in many cases by butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, bumblebees and other animal life. But the most important among these are honeybees. Because honeybees can be colonized in a hive and moved into a field, farmers can enhance pollination through use of honeybees much easier than with other pollinators. They don’t pollinate intentionally but in the process of looking for nectar, the honeybee (or other pollinator) gets pollen grains on its body from the stamen and then when it goes to the next flower they are transferred to the stigma.

Without this pollination process, the plant would not develop fruit, nor develop seed from which to be reproduced. All Cucurbit crops such as squash, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydew melons, pumpkins and gourds require honeybees for pollination. Without having adequate bees present, they would produce very few fruit.

Around $400 billion worth of food production worldwide relies on the use of pollinators. Between $25 and $35 billion of crop production in the US each year requires pollinators and that doesn’t include the $300+ million worth of honey produced in the US each year.

Unfortunately, honeybees face many challenges in today’s world. Varroa mites have become a deadly problem for beekeepers, destroying many colonies each year. Indiscriminate use of insecticides is also responsible for the decline in honeybee populations. Loss of natural habitat is another grave issue facing honeybees. There are very few wild colonies of honeybees remaining due to these issues, so we rely mainly on managed colonies for use in pollination.

What can be done to help reduce risk to honeybees? While Varroa mites are a difficult problem, scientists in states such as Arizona, Ohio, Nebraska, Maryland, New York, Georgia and with USDA are actively working on different treatments and methods to combat this villain of the honeybee. More bee-friendly insecticides are on the market today and those that use insecticides near bees are more aware of spraying at times and with methods that reduce exposure of bees to insecticides. Using shorter residual insecticides help to reduce the risk as well.

Planting pollinator-friendly species is something we all can do, whether in our own yard, in the wild or in cultivated fields. Crocus, hyacinth, borage, echinacea, foxglove, snapdragon, bee balm, hosta, zinnias, sunflowers, sweet William, thyme and asters are all good plants on which bees love to forage.

So, the next time you see a honeybee, thank it for helping you to have nutritious food to eat. You don’t have to hug it and for goodness sakes, don’t kill it! That little critter is doing a very big job to help feed the world as are other types of pollinators. During National Pollinator Month, consider what you can do to help protect these valuable species.