The Importance of Native Pollinators

What do Pollinators Do?

Pollinators are the animals responsible for transferring pollen from one flower to another for fertilization. They include a variety of animals including most notably bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and beetles. Animal Pollinators are not actively trying to spread pollen from flower to flower. Instead, they use flower nectar and pollen as a source of food and are attracted to the flowers by their color, shape, and scent. While an animal is collecting nectar, the loose clingy pollen invariably falls onto the pollinator and is carries with it as it moves to the next flower, where it is deposited and allowed to fertilize the new flowers ovules

Agriculture in Lancaster County

Lancaster’s long standing agricultural tradition is a cornerstone of our community. It draws families, businesses, and tourists; it is engrained into the culture. Life in the towns and cities of Lancaster County revolves around the county’s booming agricultural productivity. The ag industry brings upwards of 4 billion dollars into the local economy annually, making Lancaster one of the most productive agricultural centers in the nation. The success of the ag industry means the success of Lancaster’s economy and, more importantly, its culture and community. Its existence is what allowed Lancaster to become one of America's first inland cities and has allowed it to thrive for hundreds of years. For this reason, it is critical that we, as a community, work to support agriculture in Lancaster as best we can.

Pollinators and Agriculture

Attracting pollinators is a critical component of maintaining Lancaster County’s high level of agricultural productivity. Pollinators most notably include bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, as well as a plethora of other animals and insects, and these animals are responsible for transferring pollen from one flower to another for fertilization. This step allows for the development of many fruits and vegetables and supplies the seeds for the next generation of plants. Without the help of animal pollinators, much of the pollen necessary for fertilization would not be spread. Some locally grown crops such as blueberries and cherries are more than 90% dependent on animal pollinators. Even in crops that are capable of self pollination, animal pollinators increase the genetic diversity and general strength and robustness of the crop. A healthy pollinator population results in a healthier crop and increased yields.

Growing Native Pollinator Gardens

Pollinator Decline and Collapse

Recently the European honey bee, far and away the most important insect pollinator for the pollination of domesticated crops, has experienced a dramatic reduction in population due to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which is thought to be the result of an excessive use of pesticides on agricultural fields. Because of the drop in honeybee populations, it is important that farmers begin looking to utilize a more diverse group of native pollinators for their crops, pollinators including native bees, butterflies, birds, and beetles.  Native pollinators are capable of fully pollinating crops, and the diversity of native pollinator species makes them less susceptible threats like disease. Turning to native pollinators, whether partially or entirely, will dissuade the cost of renting expensive non-native honey bees while helping to support native pollinator populations.

Why Grow Native Pollinator Gardens?

As we attempt to move away from the European honey Bee as our main agricultural pollinator, we need to find ways to adequately support the native pollinator populations. Native bees have a much more limited range in habitat than the honey bee, and as such, simply placing a hive near the margins of an agricultural field is not enough to ensure that the hive becomes established there and is capable of pollinating the adjacent field. In addition, with the expansion of agriculture and thus reduction of native habitat, native pollinator populations have been decimated. But this is by no means permanent. There are as many as 450 bee species native to Pennsylvania that can be utilized for agricultural use, and  the best way to promote these native pollinator populations is to provide them with sufficient, native habitat. This is why developing native pollinator gardens is an important component to increasing native pollinator diversity and promoting agricultural productivity in Lancaster. Whether you are establishing a native pollinator garden in your backyard or integrating one into your agricultural fields, your efforts will help promote a large and diverse pollinator population capable filling the honey bee void.

Going Native, Organic, and Polycrop

While a traditional flower garden might do well to attract a few bees and butterflies, planting a garden of native plants for pollinators will attract more of the native pollinator populations and provide them with a valuable food source. The 450 bee species native to Pennsylvania have evolved for millennia to seek out the flowers native to this same region, not to mention, butterflies utilize very specific plants to host their caterpillars. This means that planting flowers also native to Lancaster County will more effectively attract the pollinators necessary to sustain our agricultural system.

Growing an organic pollinator garden is especially important as many pesticides can be harmful to pollinators, and bees in particular. Pesticides are thought to be the main culprit in causing colony collapse disorder in honey bee hives. In addition, many of the important pollinator species are insects that will be repelled by generic pesticides.

Finally, polycropping provides consistent sources of nectar and pollen for native pollinators throughout the year.

Neonicotinoids and Honeybees

Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides commonly used in agriculture.  Similar in structure to nicotine, neonicotinoids target the nervous systems of invertebrates. They have gained popularity over the years because of their water solubility, allowing the insecticide to be applied to the soil, then be taken up by the plant. The absorption of these chemicals into the plant itself can be very dangerous to insect pollinators and bees specifically, as the neonicotinoids can contaminate the pollen and nectar of flowers. The consumption of contaminated nectar and pollen impairs the bees ability to sense direction, preventing them from foraging or navigating their way back to their hive. It is believed that these chemicals are responsible for the dramatic increase in instances of Collony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honeybees.  Bees are not the only ones affected. Neonicotinoids damage or kill many insect pollinators including beetles, butterflies, and moths. Neonicotinoids can linger in the soil as well, becoming infused in plants grown in soil sprayed months or years previously. To avoid contaminating your garden with these chemicals, you can go completely organic, or take care to avoid insecticides with any of the following active ingredients: 

  • Acetamiprid

  • Clothianidin

  • Dinotefuran

  • Imidacloprid

  • Nitenpyram

  • Thiocloprid

  • Thiamethoxam

Interested in reading more about the impacts of Neonicotinoids on insect pollinators, check out this research article:

Use of Common Pesticide Linked to Bee Colony Collapse

Additional Resources for Further Reading