Did you know that this week is National Pollinator Week? Every year organizations devoted to conservation celebrate pollinators and address the urgent issue of declining pollinator and plant populations. Pollination is the process of moving pollen within flowers or from flower to flower, allowing the plants to fertilize and reproduce. This movement can be done by wind, water, or a variety of animals, known as pollinators. Animal pollinators assist about 90% of all flowering plants in their pollination needs.
This year’s focus is on native orchids, which depend on a variety of animals for pollination. What is particularly interesting about the relationships between orchids and their pollinators is that while many insects and animals may visit orchid flowers, each orchid species often has a “preferred” pollinator. Unfortunately, if pollinator populations continue to decline, many species of orchids could be at risk.
This is true too for many of our own food sources, including coffee, bananas, and a variety of tree nuts. These plants are truly dependent on their pollinators and in turn, so are we. According to pollinator.org, “worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend. In the United States, pollination by honeybees and other insects produces $40 billion worth of products annually.” However, the loss of habitat, chemical misuse, invasive plant and animal species, and various diseases have severely affected pollinator species around the world. Unfortunately, the true scope of damage and the status of pollinators is still unknown, which is why it is so important to work to conserve pollinator species, even the seemingly non-desirable insects, such as flies.
When we think of pollinators, we typically think of the glamorous ones: bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. However, many plants are pollinated by other animals and insects such as bats, beetles, moths, and even flies; each one has its own distinct attraction to flowers. For example, bees, birds, and butterflies prefer brightly colored flowers, while flies and moths prefer pale or dark colored plants. A diverse selection of native plants in your garden can help to support pollinator populations in your area and maintain botanical biodiversity. Pollinator.org has handy regional guides on what plants are native to your area and attractive to the different pollinators in your eco-system.
So what can we do to protect and encourage pollinator communities? In the Butterfly Habitat Garden, Smithsonian Gardens has committed to planting pollinator-attracting plants free of chemical-based pesticides. In all of our gardens too, an Integrated Pest Management approach is used, meaning that we monitor insect behavior and can then attempt to control insect populations rather than eradicate them. This method can better allow for pollinators to do their jobs, as they are not exterminated by chemical-based pesticides.
Even if you cannot devote a whole habitat to pollinating critters, you can provide a refuge or food source with even one plant. James Gagliardi, horticulturist in the Butterfly Habitat Garden provided a list of some of his favorite plants in the garden that are frequently visited by pollinators:
Hummingbird Mint (Agastache spp)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Bee Balm (Monarda spp)
Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)
Salvia (Salvia spp)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa spp)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp)
Verbena (Verbena spp, especially Verbena bonariensis)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
–Elizabeth Chenevey, Smithsonian Gardens Education & Outreach Intern