Farm Hats Off to the Pollinators

It’s National Pollinator Week, the perfect time to take a look at our farm’s important pollinators—honeybees and beyond—the vital role they play in our agricultural system, and what we can do to encourage their crucial work.

Pollination defined: The process by which plant pollen is transferred from the male reproductive organs to the female reproductive organs to form seeds. In flowering plants (fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc!), pollen is transferred from the anther to the stigma, often by the wind or by insects.

There are approximately 200,000 species of animals whose instincts make them pollinators. Many of these species are insects—the honeybee, yes—but also many other kinds of bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles and ants. And there are non-insect pollinators out there doing their part, too—birds, bats, mice and other small mammals. Stone Barns would like to recognize the many pollinators that help keep diverse plants growing around the world. This is certainly a feat deserving of our recognition, appreciation and conservation. Here are some fun facts on pollinators for sharing, facebooking and tweeting our appreciation:

HummingbirdsThese fast flying birds are one of the United States’ key flower pollinators. Hummingbirds are especially attracted to the color red—which honeybees can't see, making hummingbirds vital to red-flowering plants. They carry pollen on their faces, after using their long beaks to draw nectar.

ButterfliesThese beautiful insects may not be the most efficient pollinators, but they do their part in spreading the pollen of asters, daisies, marigolds, zinnias and other flowering plants. They carry pollen on their legs, and though they cannot carry a lot of it, they move so quickly from flower to flower that they spread that pollen to a great many plants per day.

MothsEven after the sun goes down, these pollinators are still busy at work. Moths are both nocturnal (night time) and daytime pollinators. One species, the Yucca Moth, is solely responsible for pollinating the Yucca plant (found in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.)

BatsThese nocturnal pollinators work mostly in tropical and desert climates. Many kinds of fruit rely on bats for pollination—including mangoes, bananas and guavas.

BeetlesOne of the world’s ancient pollinators, beetles are still very important to some of the oldest flowering species, like magnolias.

HoneybeesOur most notable pollinators, working hard among the flowers and most importantly, our food. About 80 percent of United States crops rely on honeybees for pollination and some crops are solely reliant on their pollinators. Almonds, for instance, are completely dependent on honeybees—no honeybees, no almonds.

The honeybee sometimes carries a bad reputation. But any beekeeper, including our own Dan Carr, will counter the notion of the stinging bee, differentiating the honeybee from aggressive species like wasps and yellow jackets—frequently responsible for stings. The “gentle” honeybee, as Dan likes to say, will only sting if it feels the hive is threatened—a respectable animal instinct. After learning about bees and their complex social structure, many people say they move from fearing to loving these amazing insects. Here are just some of the incredible facts about these busy pollinators:

- Bees pollinate plants in a 3-mile radius.

- The worker bees build different sized cells inside the comb so that the queen knows whether to lay a worker (female) egg or a drone (male) egg based on the needs of the hive.

- The life span of a worker bee during foraging season is about six weeks.

- A single bee only collects enough nectar to make 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

- Foraging worker bees engage in “flower fidelity.” This means they will visit only one kind of plant on one foraging—if a bee first lands on a clover flower, she will only visit clover for that trip.

- Bees have two sets of eyes—one for outside flight and one for seeing inside the      hive.

- Bees see color in the ultraviolet spectrum.

- Bees communicate primarily through pheromones.

One of the most helpful ways in which we can keep these honeybees healthy and able to pollinate our food crops is planting a bee-friendly garden. Many of the challenges facing honeybees, including their “vanishing” or Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), have to do with the availability of diverse nectar sources across seasons. Some bee-favorite plants include:

lavender (spring)                             lemon verbena (fall)

maple (spring)                                  goldenrod (fall)

clover (spring)                                  aster (fall)

willow (spring)                                  anise hyssop (fall)

poplar (spring)                                 heather (fall)

lupines (spring)

No room to plant a garden? Here are some other ways to help:

- Visit or support an organization that grows bee-friendly gardens or encourages pollinator education.

- Next time you see a bee, or other pollinator, be nice to it—no swatting, please.

- Tell a friend about the important role pollinators play.

- For the bees: appreciate honey and buy it local. Use it in tea, coffee and cooking instead of other sweeteners.

Let’s hear it for ALL of the world’s pollinators!