For many New Jerseyans, it wouldn’t be summer without blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, and many varieties of melon and squash, all grown in this state we’re in.
And we have dozens of unfamiliar, native pollinating insects to thank!
The production of most fruits, seeds, and nuts requires insect pollinators, who transfer pollen from the male anthers of a flower to the female stigma residing within another flower of the same species. Without this cross-fertilization, seeds and the delicious fruits that encase them usually won’t grow.
About 85 percent of all plants on Earth require pollination by animals, mostly bees.
Domestic (European) honeybees are most often associated with crop pollination, but they’re not native. In recent years, the honeybees used by farmers throughout the U.S. have suffered from colony collapse disorder and other problems.
Because of the domestic honeybee decline, the role of native pollinators is all the more important. Scientists estimate that wild pollinators provide as much as half of all crop pollination.
A recent study headed by Rachael Winfree, an ecologist and professor at Rutgers University, shows that a great diversity of native pollinators is needed to provide this valuable “ecosystem service” of crop pollination.
Published in the journal Science, the study says that in order to provide crop pollination on a large scale – that is, an entire agricultural region rather than a small study plot – there must be a large diversity of native bee species. The larger the geographic area, the more native bee species are needed for successful crop pollination.
“Our results confirm the importance of biodiversity in keeping the planet habitable for human beings,” said Winfree.
The study took place over several years on 48 farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Researchers identified more than 100 species of wild bees pollinating the flowers of crops like blueberries, watermelons and cranberries.
In New Jersey, native pollinators include bumblebees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees and squash bees, as well as wasps. Many of our colorful butterflies are also pollinators, including monarchs, tiger swallowtails, painted ladies, fiery skippers, orange sulfurs, common buckeyes and black swallowtails.
Dozens of moths – including underwings, owlet, geometer, sphinx and hummingbird moths – and hundreds of species of beetles are pollinators. Ruby-throated hummingbirds also carry pollen between individuals of many species of native shrubs and wildflowers while gathering nectar, the only New Jersey bird to regularly do so.
How can we make sure that there are enough wild pollinators for the Garden State’s crops? Winfree has some advice:
“Farmers can plant fallow fields and road edges with flowering plants, preferably plants whose flowering periods are different, because wild pollinators need to be supported throughout the growing season,” she said. “They can reduce pesticide use and avoid spraying during crop bloom, when more bees are in the crop field.”
Among the plants that will attract and provide nourishment to native pollinators, according to Winfree, are yellow giant-hyssop (Agastache nepetoides), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), spotted Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), flat-topped goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), white heath aster(Symphyotrichum pilosum), blue vervain (Verbena hastata), New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), and Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum).
It’s critical to avoid the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Bee communities, both wild and domestic, have experienced severe declines as pesticide use increased. Especially harmful are a group of pest control chemicals called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short.
Neonic-coated seeds grow into plants whose parts, including the pollen and fruit, are highly toxic to pollinators. In April, member states of the European Union voted in favor of an almost complete ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides across the EU. The United States has yet to do so, although the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently assessing the impact of neonics on bees.
Unfortunately, neonic-coated seeds are in widespread use on New Jersey farms. As a homeowner, before purchasing seeds and plants from your local nurseries, ask if they are treated with neonics. Many retailers may not know the answer to this question, but it’s a good opportunity to let them know it’s important to consumers.
June 18-24 is National Pollinator Week, a great time to learn about the role of wild pollinators in our food system – and to plant native perennial plants, stop using chemical pesticides and herbicides, and demand neonic-free plants!
For more information about native plants which will grow well on your property, go to the Native Plant Society of New Jersey website atwww.npsnj.org or the Jersey-Friendly Yards website at www.jerseyyards.org.
To learn more about New Jersey’s native bees, see the identification guide put together by Winfree at https://winfreelab.files.wordp ress.com/2014/08/newjerseynati vebees_foldout.pdf.
To learn more about neonicotinoids, go to https://xerces.org/neonicotino ids-and-bees.
And for more information about preserving farmland, open space and natural resources in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.