With spring in full and glorious bloom in Northern California and the Napa Valley, it is easy to find graceful pollinators of all shapes and sizes flitting about fields and flowers, where they are hard at work pollinating plants.
Nearly any place that you can think of holds a potential home for an insect, be it water, woods, field or stream. It is said that there are approximately 100,000 species of insects in North America alone.
Besides the precious pollinating insects, there are many birds that aid in the pollination process such as spider-hunters, honeycreepers and sunbirds, but locally, it is the amazing hummingbird that carries off the feat of pollinating many flowering plants.
Did you know that there is a name for the job of pollinating plants by birds? It is “ornithophily.” The jeweled, minuscule but mighty hummingbird, known as one of the tiniest birds in the world, typically weighs in at about as much as a penny, or 2.5 grams.
To carry out their important job of pollinating plants, they are adept at flying both forward and backward, can fly 25 miles per hour and, depending on the species of hummingbird, they hover with wings beating an astounding 80 times per second. Native to the Americas, hummingbirds sometimes travel 3,000 miles a year. All of these tremendous bursts of energy require a huge fuel load, necessitating that they consume their weight in nectar each day.
Just as bird-watching is a compelling hobby, it can be equally rewarding to take a few minutes out of your day to view pollinating insects, such as bees and butterflies, in action.
It seems that the more you observe the industrious little critters, the more you want to learn about their lives. The various bees, butterflies and other insects that help pollinate plants are vital to both the health of ecosystems in the wild, and to agriculture.
Unfortunately, pollinators of all sorts have been in peril for over a decade in America. Beekeepers have made note of grave losses in their hive’s production for many reasons, with climate change and loss of habitat being the biggest culprits, along with pesticide use.
Historically, Napa Valley pioneers depended upon the native bees, wasps and other pollinators too, since Napa was famous for growing grain in the 1800s. Napa was the state’s leader in wheat production, then, and along came various fruit and nut orchards, with prunes being the lead crop until grapes proliferated, and they all depended upon fertilization via insect, bird or wind.
Bees and other pollinators require an abundance of blossoms, and can be aided by succession planting so that there is almost always something in bloom in your garden. Of course, stay clear of harmful chemicals, which are detrimental to nature’s creatures, and opt instead for an organic garden using companion planting. For example, planting a row of marigolds with your other crops deters pests, while encouraging the important pollinators.
Besides birds, bees, butterflies and wasps, small creatures such as ants, flies, bats and even moths are pollination powerhouses. These critters nudge pollen on the flowers when they make a visit to the plant to obtain its nectar or pollen. The plant pollen then travels from the male plant’s anther to its stigma, which is female, and then — voila! — fertilization of the plant’s ovules occurs.
Good ol’ Mother Nature is creative in her means of attracting pollinators. Some pollinators are drawn to various color patterns in the plants, some are attracted to the plant’s scent and other plants invite pollination though its nectar guide that is visible to us only by ultraviolet light.
Industrious bees, the most well-known of all pollinators are fascinating to watch with their payload of pollen which they meticulously hold in their scopa, or pollen-holders beneath their hind legs. Both bumblebees and honeybees are equipped with highly developed pollen-holders that are called corbicula or pollen-baskets. They are also aided in carrying their precious cargo by another special feature which is its built-in electrostatic charge.
According to plant biologists, there are concerns to both keep and create corridors of pollinator habitat. For example, if my garden contains plenty of flowering plants that attract butterflies and other pollinators such as bees, but no one else has flowering crops in the vicinity of a few miles, it can create a deterrent for the process of pollination to occur.
That’s one of the many good reasons why the proliferation of school and home gardens is so important and such a boon for pollinators.
Wildlife corridors and parks play an important part in the encouragement of pollinators with their proliferate California wildflowers, such as our state flower, the California poppy, various wild clovers, lupine, Ithuriel’s spear, and around 100 other California native flowers that grow here in Napa County. By growing a garden and including native plants that are rich in flowers you are contributing significantly to sustaining both wildlife and crop production.
For more information on planting for pollinators, see the Xerces Society’s plant list, at xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/CaliforniaPlantList_web.pdf