In the Garden:
Middle South
April, 2005
Regional Report

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In the process of gathering nectar, this bee is pollinating the apple blossom.

The Importance of Pollinators

If you've ever noticed that the cucumbers in your garden are misshapen, or the apples on your tree are small or lopsided, or your squash blossoms drop, you may be seeing signs of poor pollination. Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the anther -- the male reproductive structure -- to a receptive stigma -- the female reproductive structure. These and many other common garden crops must be pollinated for proper fruit development.

Honeybees used to be the primary pollinators in home gardens, but in the last few years the honeybee population has been ravaged by an outbreak of parasitic mites. This is affecting not only home gardeners, but also commercial growers. Honeybees are the most important pollinators of insect-pollinated crop plants, and it's been estimated that up to one third of our food intake depends on the work of honeybees.

Honeybee History
It wasn't always this way. Surprisingly, considering how widespread they are, honeybees are not native to this country. European settlers brought them here as reliable and relatively docile pollinators, as well as providers of honey and wax. Over the years these "domesticated" bees swarmed and created new colonies, resulting in a large population of "feral" honeybees.

So who or what pollinated plants before the arrival of European settlers and their honeybees? There are hundreds of other insect pollinators, including beetles, butterflies, moths, bumblebees, and flies, as well as a variety of native bees. Unfortunately, the populations of many of these insects are also suffering declines. Insecticides and other pesticides have harmed them directly, and their habitat and food sources have been disappearing as fields are mowed and developed, roadside weeds are killed with herbicides, and wild lands are overgrazed.

Protect Your Pollinators
Other than keeping your own beehives, what can you do improve pollination in your garden?

First and foremost, use insecticides sparingly and with extreme care. Many insecticides, even organic ones, are broad-spectrum, meaning they will harm all insects, not just the particular pests you are targeting. Avoid spraying insecticides when plants are in bloom and bees are active. And remember that even targeted biological controls such as Bt, which is used to control caterpillars, also will kill the larvae of pollinating butterflies.

Pesticides should be used as a last resort, after other methods, such as hand picking and protecting crops with row covers, have failed to keep pest damage at acceptable levels.

Attracting Pollinating Insects
You can attract bees and other pollinators by planting a variety of vegetables and flowers. Remember that bees aren't altruists doing you a favor in pollinating your apple blossoms -- they are searching for food. In the process of foraging for nectar and pollen, these insects inadvertently transfer pollen from one flower to the next. Planting a diversity of flowers ensures that pollinating insects will find food in your garden all season long. Include native plants in your garden to attract native pollinators.

Pollinators also appreciate a source of water. This might be a birdbath or a shallow pan that you keep filled with water. Place several rocks in the pan to provide landing sites for the insects to keep them from drowning. Some native bees nest in the ground, so leave some bare spots in the garden. Some nest in dead wood, so if possible leave some dead tree limbs around. Or you can build bee nesting houses by drilling 5/16-inch-diameter holes 4 or 5 inches deep in a block of wood, then mounting it in a protected spot, such as under the eaves.

You might also consider taking up beekeeping. Consult with your state's department of agriculture for regulations and to find other beekeepers in your area. If possible, find an experienced beekeeper to help you get set up. Beekeeping has gotten more complicated with the recent mite problems, and it's helpful to have someone to consult with. Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby. The rewards are better pollination, and, hopefully, plenty of honey for your use and to give as gifts.


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