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Food Production

Honey bees and other pollinators are essential for the production of many of the foods we grow and eat every day. These include fruits like blueberries, apples, and peaches, as well as many vegetables, including cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, beans, melons, and peppers. Throughout the year, these industrious insects rely on a wide variety of flowers, including weeds, to provide the nectar and pollen that are their food. As gardeners we can promote pollinator health by planting a diversity of flowers to serve as nectar sources, as well as by simply allowing vegetables, herbs, and weeds to bloom in our yards.

What are Pollinators

Pollination is the movement of pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part. If pollination is successful and fertilization occurs, the result is the production of seed, often within a tasty fruit like a tomato or peach. Plants cannot move their own pollen and so have developed other ways to accomplish this task. Many rely on insects to get the job done and produce colorful or fragrant flowers to attract them.

Several types of insects have evolved to serve as pollinators, including moths, butterflies, wasps, and bees. Of these, the honey bee is the indispensable leader, responsible for 85% of the pollination necessary to produce one third of our nation’s food supply. Other bees, such as bumble bees, and solitary bees like the southeastern blueberry bee, play their part, but none are as prolific and industrious as the humble honey bee.

Attracting Pollinators

What you do in your own backyard can greatly affect pollinator activity and health in your garden, as well as the larger region. Including plants in your yard that attract and sustain honey bees and other pollinators can increase pollinator populations in your area and lead to higher vegetable and fruit yields in your yard and community.

You may choose to include flowers throughout your yard as a way of supporting pollinators. Or you can develop a pollinator garden by planting the flowers they love together in one bed. Either way, the more different types of flowers you have blooming throughout the year, the more pollinators and other beneficial insects you are likely to attract. Annuals flowers like cleome, cosmos, zinnias, and sunflowers are excellent bee attractors. So are many herbs. Allow basil, fennel, oregano, chives, mint, and dill to bloom in the garden to bring in pollinators and beneficial insects. Cover crops like buckwheat and clover also do a great job, as do perennials like purple coneflower, agastache, joe pye weed, goldenrod, asters, and black eyed susans.

Allowing winter vegetables like broccoli, kale, and mustard to bloom out provides a source of nectar early in season, a critical time for pollinators since few other plants are in bloom and changing weather conditions make them particularly vulnerable to food shortages. Many common lawn weeds also serve as often overlooked sources of early season nectar. Allowing winter weeds such as henbit, field pansy, and chickweed to mature in some areas of your yard will support pollinators in your community.

Pesticides and Pollinators

Providing nectar is only one part of supporting pollinators. The other is to minimize pesticide use. Bees and other pollinators are easily injured by most insecticides so it is important to only use them when absolutely necessary. If you must use an insecticide choose one that is less toxic to bees. Commonly used insecticides that are known to be highly toxic to bees include carbaryl, acephate, malathion, diazinon, bifenthrin, cyfluthrin, permethrin, and spinosad. Dust formulations are particularly dangerous to bees because they stick to bees’ bodies as they visit plants and are then taken back to the hive and spread among hive members. If you must apply an insecticide in an area where bees are active, do so only late in the evening when bees are less active, and avoid spraying flowers that bees will visit.

Learn More!

If you have questions about protecting pollinators and beneficial insects contact your local Cooperative Extension office. In Pender County call 259-1235, Mon – Fri, 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., or visit us online anytime at //pender.ces.ncsu.edu/. Feel free to email me anytime at:  Tiff_Conrad@ncsu.edu

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