Explore the world of native pollinators and how we can support them to thrive in the sanctuary ecosystem
How To Support The Pollinators
In addition to having diverse forage for the pollinators to feed on, you can attract pollinators by making sure they have appropriate nesting opportunities in the landscape. Brush piles and tall grasses are attractive to both insects and other wildlife. You can also build pollinator condos, which especially serve the leafcutter bees, mason bees, and solitary wasps.
How To Coexist With Stinging Insects
Coexisting with the stinging insects (the bees, the wasps and the hornets) requires us as humans to be mindful of our surroundings. Stumbling into a bald faced hornet nest can be quite the unpleasant experience. But if we pay attention and are on the lookout for these creatures and treat the nest with respect and give it a little space we can admire the incredible work these creatures do. The wasps and hornets don’t have to be looked at as something terrible, they are actually central to the maintenance and health of nature.
The bumblebees are very important pollinators. New bumblebee queens hatch out in the fall and overwinter in a protected place until the warmth of the sun draws them out to meet the flowers of early spring. These queens find a nice nesting site like a clump of grass or an old mouse nest, and then do all the jobs of foraging, feeding the brood, warming the nest, cleaning, protecting, etc. until the first hatch of worker bees step in to their roles, and then the queen can focus completely on laying eggs and taking care of the brood. Bumblebee nests grow to about 200-300 bees through the season. These large fuzzy bees are active through the day, even in the cool of the early morning when other pollinators haven’t started foraging yet. A number of the bumblebee species are endangered due to loss of habitat.
Solitary bees live and create nests alone, and are terrific pollinators! Most are non-aggressive. Sweat bees are a good example of solitary bees. Sweat bees are attracted to the salt in your sweat (hence the name). Solitary bees usually won’t sting unless they get pressed against the skin. In our region of Virginia, there are about 72 species of native bees, most of which are solitary. The most common native solitary bees include sweat bees, mason bees, and carpenter bees.
So many of these native bees can be found foraging on the “weeds” that are in ditches and hedgerows. These more wild areas are very important for supporting the pollinators. They are attracted to yarrow, red clover and the rudbeckias. Carder bees have brushes on their forearms and will comb the leaves of fuzzy leafed plants such as mullein and lambs ear and use the fuzz to line their nests.
Social wasps build communal nests and have both a reproductive and worker caste. Paper wasps, hornets and yellowjackets are all considered social wasps. They make their nests out of paper, scraping off old wood, chewing it into pulp with saliva, and then feathering it out to make their combs and layers of protection.
Adult wasps both drink nectar and eat pollen. They feed their larvae caterpillars and other chewed-up soft bodied insects. Wasps also visit some of the flowers that the honeybees don’t go to, so they are very important to the ecosystem. These wasps also help protect our vegetable gardens from caterpillars and weevils.
Yellow Jackets usually build underground colonies. They are generally non aggressive, but do get territorial around the colony entrance. Because they feed insects to their larvae, they are important for pest control.
As a general rule, the adult solitary wasps drink nectar and eat pollen. However, they capture and paralyze other insects to provide food for their young. While they may look alarming, they are generally non-aggressive, and not a threat to humans. They may nest either underground or in above ground cavities.
Mud dauber nests are very familiar to most people. They create nests out of mud with shapes ranging from elongated tubes to small nodules. Many mud daubers have a relationship with spiders, which they paralyze, drag back to their nests and lay eggs on for their larvae to eat.
Fun Fact: How do you distinguish between bees and wasps? Bees are hairy and wasps are shiny. Also, they feed their young differently. Wasps feed with meat (paralyzed or chewed up insects). Bees are vegetarian and feed with nectar and pollen.
Many of the flies are important pollinators. The adults drink nectar and pollen. The larvae or maggots help decompose and break down dead animals. Some flies disguise themselves as bees, but flies only have one pair of wings, versus two pairs for bees. Also fly eyes are much larger relative to the face and head.
Flower flies are members of the fly family and are very frequent visitors to flowers and excellent pollinators. Unlike bees and wasps, the flies don’t sting, but some of the flower flies do mimic wasps and bees in their coloring as a form of protection against predators. Their larvae are consumers of aphids and other soft bodied insects.
Green Lacewing larvae are such voracious eaters of aphids and other insects that they are often used as a biological control for garden pests.
Beetles were the original pollinators and maintain an affinity for some of the ancient plant families such as magnolias. The adults are pollinators, but the larvae are serious predators of aphids and other soft bodied insects. One of the most familiar of these beetles is the Lady Bug. Like the Lacewing flies, Lady Bugs are used for garden insect control. The Pennsylvania Leatherwing Beetle is another common beetle.
Another insect you will commonly find in your garden is the Praying Mantid. The Praying Mantid is not a pollinator, but it is voracious eaters of other insects.
You may not think of ants as pollinators, but they are! Ants do drink nectar from plants, but they do so much more. Ants are social insects who live in nests underground or in trees. Our whole ecosystem is dependent on the work they do.
Ants are energy channelers, decomposers, and nutrient recyclers. They make formic acid available, turning the forest floor into a lacto-fermented compost heap that preserves the nutrients as they break down from the leaf litter, mold and fungus and such. They are central to the whole world of pollinating insects, and this has everything to do with the way they care for aphids. They take aphids down into the earth to keep them warm during the winter months. They care for them and stroke them with their antennae and in return receive honeydew secreted from the aphids. When spring arrives and the leaves are coming out, the ants bring the aphids back up above ground and up to the plants, where they continue to guard them and care for them. The aphids suck sap from the plant and secrete honeydew which the ants consume. Aphids are important because they are a primary food source for the larvae of many of the other pollinators.
Fun Fact: When you introduce honeybees to a population, the ant population goes up by 40%.
In addition to insects, birds are also important pollinators and play an essential role in the ecosystem. While there are so many wonderful birds to note, we especially celebrate the ruby-throated hummingbird here in the Eastern U.S., planting red salvia, native honeysuckle, and inviting them to join our thriving family of winged ones at the Sanctuary.