Make Protecting Pollinators A Priority

Larva of Harmonia sp., a lady beetle.

Insects that pollinate crops play important roles in our ecology, food supply and economy. This article explains steps you can take to help protect them.

What is a pollinator?

A pollinator is any insect or other animal that helps transfer pollen. This can either be from flower part to flower part on the same plant or from flowers on one plant to flowers on another plant. Pollination is important for seed bearing plants. Without pollinators our food supply would be very different. Most of our staple crops (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, sugarcane, sweetpotatoes) are either wind-pollinated or are propagated vegetatively and do not require animals for pollination. For some crops, however, such as cucumber, watermelon and blueberries, yields would be much lower and production might not be profitable without supplemental pollination from honey bees.

What about bees?

Honey bees provide roughly 85% of the pollinating activity for about one-third of the U.S. food supply. Over 50 major crops either depend on bees for pollination or produce more if honey bees are plentiful in the area where they are being grown (Sanford, 2003). In 2000, bees accounted for $20 billion in that portion of U.S. agriculture which is dependent on pollination services. Since honey bees are the only insect that can be “managed” by beekeepers for pollination activities, you can think of them as winged “livestock.”

Although the imported European honey bee is typically used for pollination of commercial crops, it may be surprising to find that this bee species is not the most efficient pollinator. Native bees such as sweat bees, bumble bees and squash bees (see http://bees.tennessee.edu/peponapis.htm) are much more effective at pollination. They forage earlier or later in the season and in adverse weather when honey bees are likely to stay in the hive. $3 billion of the previously mentioned $20 billion can be attributed to native bees.

The EDIS publication, Pollination of Citrus by Honey Bees (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/AA/AA09200.pdf), provides an excellent discussion on pollination research. This includes the traditional approach and what Dr. Levin foresaw as a new focus in 1970. Dr. Sanford, the publication’s author also describes 3 events in the 1980s which greatly affected the bee industry.

Another EDIS publication, Beekeeping: Watermelon Pollination (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/AA/AA09100.pdf) describes specific considerations, described by S.E. McGregor, which influence fruit set. Please consult these 2 publications before taking the exam.

Why Are Native Florida Pollinators An Important Part Of The Pollinator Mix?

Pollination in agriculture, landscapes and natural areas is accomplished by a group of diverse animals such as bats, hummingbirds, moths, butterflies, flies, ants, thrips and wasps as well as bees. Native pollinators are insects (or other animals) that were here before European colonization and co-evolved with those New World plants which require pollination by something other than wind. The European honey bee is not native to the New World, but was brought here by European colonists in the 1600s. Although they are often managed by beekeepers, honey bees are subject to problems ranging from parasitic mites to viral and fungal diseases. Races like the Africanized honey bee have also threatened the European honey bee and made human management of honey bees challenging.

Pollinators And Pesticides

Some pollinators readily travel sizable distances to find flowers. On the other hand, foraging European honey bees prefer to forage near the nest site or hive, but will travel 2 to 5 miles if no flowers are available in the immediate area. Keep in mind that a European honey bee has ample opportunity to come into contact with pesticides even is not exposed on your site. The EDIS Fact Sheet, Cir 534, Protecting Honey Bees from Pesticides (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/AA/AA14500.pdf) provides very detailed information about how to protect bees. Please read this fact sheet and refer to it while taking the exam.

How Do Landscape And Farming Practices Endanger Pollinators?

Native pollinators forage on a variety of nectar providing plants, but unfortunately their wide flight range can also increase their chance of pesticide exposure. As mentioned earlier, pollinators can be injured or killed by pesticides applied anywhere within their foraging area.

Mary Lamberts is a UF/IFAS Miami-Dade County Extension agent in Homestead.

Adrian Hunsberger is an urban horticulture agent at the University of Florida, Miami-Dade County Extension office in Homestead. Sara DeBerry is a recent graduate of the University of Florida's Environmental Horticulture Program.
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