European honey bees may be the most recognizable pollinators in the world. But the busiest workers in American gardens are often overlooked: these are the bats, birds, flies, wasps, solitary bees, and other animals that make up the native pollinator population. In the midst of the summer pollinator frenzy, we want to celebrate and protect the species that have pollinated native plants for hundreds of years.
When the gardens at Oak Spring reach full bloom in the summer, thousands of pollinators visit our flowers, some working even into the night. While some plants use wind or water to transfer pollen needed for fertilization, approximately 90% of the world’s plants rely on animals to aid in pollination. Pollinators include both vertebrates and invertebrate groups, numbering over 200,000 species total. This diverse group is responsible for our agricultural staples, including the flowers our gardeners grow at Oak Spring.
Since 2006, one of the most beloved pollinators, the European honey bee, has garnered concern for its epidemic Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has raised widespread alarm about the future of U.S. agriculture.
European honey bees arrived in North America during European colonization in the 17th century, and have been raised and domesticated here ever since. Today, honey bees are often used in large-scale planting or monocultures because those plant systems have a high frequency of blooms during a short period of time. As honey bees live in colonies, farmers can transport hives onto the sites of blooming plants, so that the bees are used in rotation.
Most native pollinators, however, are solitary insects that cannot be moved in large numbers. Many native bee species, like the mason bee, build their nests in undisturbed patches of mud or grasses. As the dependence on mobile bees increases, the native habitats for native bees are decreasing in large-scale planting.
While Colony Collapse Disorder is a definite threat to honey production, honey bee pollination in the U.S. has always been supplemented by the work of native bees, who carried out 100% of pollination before European honey bees arrived. Native bees are skilled pollinators of fruit, and are responsible for 90% of the pollination of watermelons. They are instrumental in the production of apples and tomatoes, and they can pollinate twice as many blueberries than honey bees. Native bees are also friendlier to humans, as they do not swarm and rarely sting.
Unfortunately, the stressors proposed to have caused the decline of honey bees, like pesticides, viruses, and nutritional deficiencies, are also affecting native bees. Oak Spring’s head gardener Randy Embrey says honey bees continue to dominate conservation efforts, while native pollinators are exempt from the discussion.
“A lot of native pollinators are seen as pests,” Embrey says. “But they deserve the same respect we give to honey bees because they’re doing the same job. We still eat the fruits of their labor, and just because it isn’t in the form of honey doesn’t mean that it’s less important. Recently we’ve seen a closer awareness in natives. They’re an important consideration in planning the gardens. We want to grow native plants that were here before humans developed it.”
Tips for supporting native pollinators in your area:
Support small-scale agriculture. Small farms produce a variety of plants, providing pollen and nectar for solitary bees and other native pollinators throughout the growing season.
Plant your own garden with plants that bloom all season. Plants like coneflowers and milkweeds bloom throughout the summer, while asters and Russian sage bloom into the fall. Leave bare patches of weeds or mud to accommodate the nests of native bees.
Reduce your pesticide use. While dandelions, clover, and other flowering ‘weeds’ are considered unattractive in lawns, they are an important food source for pollinators.