Because pollinator species such as honey bees, other insects and birds are essential partners of farmers in producing much of our food supply, the Commonwealth has declared June 18 – 24, 2012, as Virginia Pollinator Week. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) encourages all Virginians to do something during Pollinator Week to attract, protect or increase the state’s pollinator species.
“Pollinators are essential for the development of bountiful fruit and vegetable crops. To develop properly, crops need more than fertile soil, water and sunshine; they may also need bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and other insects and animals for pollination,” said Matthew J. Lohr, VDACS Commissioner. According to Keith Tignor, Virginia State Apiarist at VDACS, the numbers of pollinators are diminishing in Virginia, particularly among honey bees, a prime pollinator. “We are losing bees at an alarming rate,” Tignor said. “Recognition through the Virginia Pollinator Week will help to highlight the importance of honey bees and other pollinators to food production and the environment.”
Pollination occurs when animals, wind or water transfer pollen from the anther of one plant or flower to the stigma of another to initiate the process of fertilization. Once fertilized, a plant’s ovary swells and eventually ripens into fruit for seeds to develop. In most plants, pollination is necessary for the plant to produce fruit, whether it’s a grain of wheat or a watermelon.
Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, with a $55 billion annual economic impact. Without adequate pollination services, Virginia could experience a significant reduction in its harvest of apples, alfalfa, berries, cucumbers, melons, peaches, squash, tomatoes and pumpkins. Experts estimate that insect-pollinated plants are the direct or indirect source of approximately one-third of the human diet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 80 percent of insect crop pollination is accomplished by honey bees. In the U.S, honey bees pollinate more than $20 billion worth of crops annually. They are an excellent choice because as pollinators, honey bees are manageable, moveable, adaptable and won’t harm the plants in the pollination process. To pollinate their crops, U.S. growers rent approximately 2.5 million colonies of bees each year. Commercial beekeepers, those who manage more than 300 colonies of bees, number more than 1,500 in the U.S. In Virginia, honey bee pollination contributes more than $110 million to the state’s economy.
In Virginia, the number of bees available for pollination has been reduced to a third the number available just 30 years ago. Virginia had 98,000 bees in the mid-70s but only 35,000 today. The annual winter hive loss is 30 percent.
To attract pollinators to yards and gardens, VDACS offers the following suggestions:
- Plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year. A greater variety of plants available will attract more pollinators to a garden or landscape. Providing pollen and nectar sources throughout the year offers a food source to increase their numbers and activity.
- Plant flowers in clumps rather than singly or in rows. The fragrance from the flowers can attract pollinators from a great distance. Clumping flowers in groups increases the intensity of the fragrance and a pollinator’s ability to locate its origin, including those that only come out at night, such as moths and bats.
- Select plants that are known to attract pollinators in your area. Many of these will be native plants. To determine which plants are best for attracting pollinators in your region, go to pollinator.org/guides.htm and enter your zip code for an area-specific Guide.
- Choose flowers with a variety of colors. The color of a flower often alerts pollinators to good nectar and pollen sources. For example, butterflies are attracted to red, orange and yellow while hummingbirds prefer purple, red and fuchsia colors.
- Choose flowers with a variety of shapes. Butterflies and honey bees need to land before feeding and usually prefer flat, open flowers. Tubular flowers help lure pollinators with long beaks and tongues, such as hummingbirds. NAPPC has guidelines on the types of flowers that appeal to the different pollinators at pollinator.org/Resources/Pollinator_Syndromes.pdf.
- Plant non-hybrid flowers. Many hybrid flowers have had their pollen, nectar or fragrance bred out of them. Non-hybrid flowers are often more attractive to pollinators.
- Provide or build nesting structures for pollinators. Bird and bat houses, shrubbery, compost and piles of fallen branches and brush provide harborage for many pollinators. Plans and tips for these structures are available through Virginia Cooperative Extension at http://www.ext.vt.edu/.
- Never use pesticides or herbicides when pollinators are present or around a pollinator garden. Even organic pesticides can be potentially harmful to pollinators. Herbicides can actually wipe out some of the most important food plants for pollinators. Some pesticides that are less harmful to pollinators can become more lethal when used with an herbicide or fungicide.