Every year we celebrate National Pollinator Week in June to bring awareness to pollinators and the vital roles they play in our ecosystem.
Pollinating animals like bees, butterflies, bats and birds play an important role in pollinating plants that support our world including fruits, vegetables, nuts, fibers, raw materials and more! They also pollinate plants that provide carbon sequestration and erosion control, important things for a tiny bee or butterfly. These little members of our ecosystem are important and often overlooked. National Pollinator Week's goal is to shine a light on these critters and showcase their role in our world.
What is pollination? This simple question powers the Earth's ecosystem. From the tiniest bee to the crops they pollinate and the animals they feed, pollination is one of the most important cycles in our world.
Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the anthers of one flower to the stigma of another (or sometimes the same flower!) Once the pollen is transferred the flower is now fertilized and can create a seed. Seeds then create new plants and the reproduction cycle of the plant is complete!
The most crucial step in pollination is the transfer of pollen. Pollen is either transported by the wind or animals and insects called pollinators. Pollinators can be a wide variety of animals; around 200,000 species act as pollinators! Most common are bees and butterflies but moths, wasps, flies, beetles, bats, birds and even some small mammals are all pollinators. Fun fact - the world's largest pollinator is the lemur!
Pollinator species all over the globe are currently at risk. Bees, butterflies, even bats are in decline due to habitat loss, disease and climate change. And given that pollinators are responsible for 1 in 3 bites of food we eat, they are crucial to our survival.
For more information on pollination and pollinators, click here to visit the US Forest Service's website.
Bats - the Pollinator Underdog
Bats are getting a pretty bad rap lately, and pollinator week is a great time to give them a shout out. They are super important pollinators! And crazy cute ones.
Flowers that attract bats are distinct from those that attract the more typical bees or butterflies, as bats are nocturnal. Bat flowers are typically greenish or white in color (no need for fancy colors in the dark), and often emit strong, sweet fragrances after the sun goes down. Many of them produce fruit that bats rely on for food, and some of them produce fruit that people rely on as well! While commercial bananas no longer rely on pollination before harvest, the wild ancestors of the bananas we eat are pollinated by bats.
Most of these bat-plant relationships are found in desert and tropical regions, including the desert regions of southern California, where the Mexican long-nosed bat feasts on cactus flowers. Studies have also found that insect-eating bats, which California has quite a lot of, can also by very effective pollinators, as they eat insects that are attracted to flowers.
Worldwide, bat populations have dropped dramatically in recent decades, due to both habitat loss and disease. Attracting bats to your yard or property is a great way to help out local wildlife (as well as control mosquitos!), and is pretty easy to do by creating bat houses to roost in. They are relatively simple to make; a good design can be found here.
And if you want to know more about the vital role bats play in agriculture, please read this great article from our federal partners at NRCS.
Bees - Pollinator Superstars
Bumblebee pollinating yarrow. Honeybee pollinating chaparrel mallow. Honeybee pollinating dogwood.
Bumblebee pollinating yarrow.
Honeybee pollinating chaparrel mallow.
Honeybee pollinating dogwood.
While many animals are considered pollinators, insects like bees and butterflies do a majority of the pollination. Bees are essential pollinators for both the flowers in our gardens and the crops that we eat. There are over 20,000 species of bees around the world.
Most people are familiar with European varieties of honeybees, which are non-native. But did you know there are around 1,600 species of bees native to California? One key difference is that our non-native bee friends live in large colonies, while most native species are solitary, preferring to nest alone. Here are some of our favorite bees!
- The most common native bee is the Yellow Faced Bumblebee or Bombus vosnesenskii. It is noted for being very slow and nesting in the ground, favoring old gofer holes. It is great for native gardens as it loves some amazing California native plants including manzanita and sage. It is also great for tomato crops!
- Most of us are familiar with Xylocopa varipincta or the Valley Carpenter Bee. These massive, black bees are often found in your garden. They may be big and scary, but there is nothing to worry about with this bee because it does not sting. Carpenter bees get their name from their nesting habits, carving out decaying sections of wood, or untreated lumber, to lay their eggs. And while the females are black, the males are golden brown, earning them the nickname "teddy bear bee."
- And finally, the Mason Bee or Osima. As their name implies, these incredible bees are builders. They use mud to construct walls between each egg chamber. It is also unique in that is stores pollen on its abdomen instead of its hind legs like most bees. Check out this incredible video of mason bees at work.
We encourage everyone to get to know their native bees! Click here for more information on California native bees.
Bee populations all over the globe are in decline due to many factors including habitat loss, disease and climate change. The Xerces Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature recently found that 28% of bumblebees in North America are threatened, while 50% of leafcutter bees and 27% of mason bees are "at risk." Luckily, there are things we can do to help out these essential pollinator populations.
Butterflies - Nature's Prettiest Pollinator
Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar. Pipevine swallowtail. Possible gulf fritillary.
Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar.
Possible gulf fritillary.
Monarchs - Pollinator Icon
Monarchs are one of nature's most beautiful butterflies, and they are native to California! Each year Monarchs make an epic journey across North America. The Western Monarch travels up and down the west coast of North America, wintering in several key locations in California, roosting in enormous groups. This trip takes all year and several generations to make. While Monterey is famous for its overwintering sites, there is evidence that over the years Monarchs have actually overwintered right here in Solano County!
Monarchs are in peril. Western Monarch populations are at 1% of the levels they were in 1980's. A big problem for these regal butterflies is habitat loss. Monarchs are unique in that they need a specific plant to breed and ensure their survival. Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, is ONLY plant a monarch caterpillar eats. Milkweed is vital and gives them a leg up against predators; the sappy leaves they eat make them taste awful! And not all milkweed is the same. While the native showy milkweed is amazing, some of the non-native, tropical varieties can actually do more harm than good. Tropical milkweed is evergreen and can confuse Monarchs, disrupting their migratory cycle. For example, California is an overwintering site for Monarchs. They begin arriving in early October when native milkweeds are dying down. Tropical milkweed is still in full bloom, tricking some Monarchs into believing it's time to breed instead of overwinter!
Luckily, the conservation community is taking this threat to Monarchs seriously and there are amazing resources out there from organizations like the Monarch Joint Venture, the Xerces Society and The Journey North. Additionally, there are great reports and papers available for the more avid conservationist. You can read up on creating Monarch habitat in California here, protecting California butterfly groves here, and overwintering sites here. And for milkweed specific resources check out some articles here and here and visit the National Wildlife Federation's page on monarchs.
And right here at Solano RCD we have serval projects that focus on Monarch habitat restoration. We are currently in the midst of an overhaul at our Conservation Education Center. Our demo garden is becoming a Monarch and pollinator haven, focusing on milkweed and other native plants suitable for pollinators, with the goal to plant 2,000 milkweed plants! We will also continue to hold volunteer events workshops that educate the community on the importance of native plants.
Moths - The Butterfly's Nocturnal Sister
Like bats, moths are an important part of the pollinator night shift. They too are attracted to paler, sweet smelling flowers that their other pollinator friends might pass by. This makes them an important member of the pollinator family.
Moths and butterflies are closely related but there are a few key differences. Moths are most active at dusk, dawn and night while butterflies are diurnal, meaning they are out and about during daylight hours. Butterflies have nobs at the end of their antennae, moths do not. And while butterflies are known for forming chrysalides, or hard, smooth covers, when transforming from larva to adult, moths make soft, silky cocoons. But both butterflies and moths are in the same group of insects called Lepidoptera, which is derived from Greek meaning "scaly wing." All lepidopterans have wings made of tiny little scales, hence the name. And just like butterflies, moths are important pollinators!
White-Lined Sphinx Moth or Hyles lineata. This moth is gorgeous and large; some folks say they can get as large as hummingbird and are often mistaken for European hummingbird moths because of their size. They have a wide geographic range and can be found throughout most of North America. They are characterized by beautiful beige and cream markings on their wings, with a vibrant pink stripe on their hind wings. And Sphinx caterpillars are iconic too. They have a unicorn looking spike on their booty. This spike may look menacing, but is just a showy way of keeping predators away. California Clearwing or Hemaris thetis. Insects take many forms, shapes and sizes. They often try to mimic one another to look more menacing than they are. This is a great example of just that! California clearwings resemble bees, specifically bumblebees. You might have seen this moth and not even known it! This species is found all over the Pacific Northwest, including California. And a little farther north you can find the Snowberry Clearwing or Hemaris diffinis. They too resemble bumblebees but these moths are on the larger size with a wing span of 1 to 2 inches! And like their name suggest, they love nectar from snowberries.
White-Lined Sphinx Moth or Hyles lineata. This moth is gorgeous and large; some folks say they can get as large as hummingbird and are often mistaken for European hummingbird moths because of their size. They have a wide geographic range and can be found throughout most of North America. They are characterized by beautiful beige and cream markings on their wings, with a vibrant pink stripe on their hind wings.
And Sphinx caterpillars are iconic too. They have a unicorn looking spike on their booty. This spike may look menacing, but is just a showy way of keeping predators away.
California Clearwing or Hemaris thetis. Insects take many forms, shapes and sizes. They often try to mimic one another to look more menacing than they are. This is a great example of just that! California clearwings resemble bees, specifically bumblebees. You might have seen this moth and not even known it! This species is found all over the Pacific Northwest, including California.
And a little farther north you can find the Snowberry Clearwing or Hemaris diffinis. They too resemble bumblebees but these moths are on the larger size with a wing span of 1 to 2 inches! And like their name suggest, they love nectar from snowberries.
Visit these other great sites for additional resources on pollinators and things you can do to help protect them.
- Gardening for Pollinators - UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden click here!
- Pollinator Conservation Resources - Xerces Society click here!
- Garden for Wildlife - National Wildlife Federation click here!
- The Pollinator Partnership - click here!