Spring Is for the Pollinators

— Written By Zack Taylor and last updated by
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Here we are in the first week of spring, and it has certainly felt like spring for the past couple of weeks. All of this warm weather has brought out the spring flowers, and where there are flowers, there are bees. Not just bees though, pollinators.

This is the time of year when pollen is all around, and while it may make our eyes itch and cause a lot of sneezing, pollen is extremely important for our survival. While some plants, like the pines that drop yellow pollen all around us, can pollinate themselves to make seed and reproduce, many other depend on pollinators to that work. In fact, it is estimated that 80 percent of plants require pollinators in order to create a seed.

When we think if pollinators, we often think of bees. While bees may be the most well known pollinator, they are certainly not the only one. Other insects, including flies, wasp, beetles, butterflies, and moths can be pollinators as well. Pollinators aren’t just insects though, mammals, like bats, or birds, especially hummingbirds, can pollinate flowers as well. No matter what kind of animal pollinates a flower, the process is the same, pollen from the male part of the flower must reach the female part of the flower in order for a seed to be produced. Why is this important to us though?

One out of every three bites of food we eat depends on pollinators to be produced. Nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables all depend on pollinators before they can be harvested and reach our plates at the table. By far the most important pollinator for food crops are honeybees, because with the large scale farms of today, natural pollinator populations just can’t keep up. This is where beekeeping comes into play. Beekeepers can often be more profitable by providing bees for pollination than by selling honey. Beekeepers can move their hives to exactly where they are needed when crops are flowering. Did you know every year around the time of valentine’s day, over half the domestic bees in the country are in one region of California to pollinate the countries almond crop? That’s over 1.5 million colonies of bees!

Bees are here in Lee County too. They pollinate the strawberries that we will be enjoying soon, the tomatoes that go so well on a slice of bread with a little mayo in the summer, and the pumpkins we carve in the fall. Not only are they important for our farmers, they pollinate our backyard gardens as well.

So why am I telling you so much about bees? Well, bees have been in the news a lot during the past several years, and most of the news has been about the declining populations of bees in the country. That may be a little misleading. There are actually more bees in the country today then there were 20 years ago. After a decline in population through the early 2000s, bee populations have been on the rise. The main cause of that decline its still debated, but likely due to a number of factors, everything from a decreasing interest in beekeeping, to bee pest like the Varroa mite, to various diseases and viruses that effect honeybees. Pesticides have been blamed by many for declining bee populations, and certainly they played a factor. We are learning now though how we can use pesticides more responsibly to help prevent negative impacts to bees. One measure has been to put the new “bee box” on the label for all pesticides which are toxic to bees. If you have read my previous articles, you know by now that the label is the law, meaning any pesticide use which is prohibited on the label is illegal. When you buy pesticides this year, especially insecticides, be sure to read the label and the bee box on that label, it can be located by looking for a red, diamond-shaped box with a picture of a bee inside. It will have information about when to spray and how to avoid harming bee populations. It will place restriction on when the pesticide can be used based on things like time of day and growth stage of the plant. These are important factors in the effect of the pesticide on bees. Be sure to follow these guidelines when making an application, not only will you be sure to use the right amount of pesticide and following the law, but you will be protecting pollinators for your farm or garden, and your neighbors.

For more information about pesticides and pollinator protection, please call theExtension office at 919-775-5624.

Zack Taylor is the Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock, and Pesticide Coordinator for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.