The Birds and the Bees
Butterflies, Bees, Birds, and Many other Insects and Animals are Very Important to all our Plants, Gardens and Fruits and Vegetables
We see the bees and the butterflies flitting from one flower to the next all the time in our gardens. But there are a host of other creatures performing all kinds of important functions for our plants. There are pollinators, predators, seed spreaders, and aerators to name a few. The pollinators are critical to our food and beverage supply. Nearly 90% of plants are pollinated with the help of some sort of creature. It is important to protect these garden helpers by eliminating or at least limiting your use of harmful chemicals. You can also invite them to work in your garden with certain plants and features.
- Bees of course are important pollinators. They carry pollen from one flower to another all day long, facilitating reproduction of the plant (seed development). Brightly colored flowers attract the bees, they especially like blue, purple, yellow and white flowers. Many plants also have special adaptations to help the bees do their job. For example, monkshood are totally dependent specifically on bumblebees for pollination. The monkshood bloom forms a hooded cover, requiring the bumblebee to walk over the pollen covered anther and then the sticky stigma which collects the pollen, in order to get to the nectar. By contacting these bloom parts, the bumblebee has enabled the monkshood to set seed and reproduce. Some plants depend on a very specific pollinator such as the monkshood and the bumblebee. But thousands of different bees, butterflies, ants, birds and even bats pollinate plants. Bumblebees of course pollinate many plant species, sometimes using “buzz pollination”, which vibrates the flower and encourages the anther to release more pollen. Honeybees visit and pollinate annuals, perennials, fruit trees and weeds such as clover. Thousands of bee species are busy pollinating plants every day, some species specializing in specific plants.
- Butterflies can probe deep into a flower looking for nectar, pollinating along the way. They love bright pink or yellow blooms as well as orange, purple and red. They prefer blooms that are flat for them to land on with short flower tubes.
- Flies, seemingly nothing but a pest, are the second most important pollinator. Now we are not talking about the pesty housefly, but a broad range of flies that can be pollinators and predators.
- Wasps, hornets and yellowjackets are pollinators, but can also be predators. There are small parasitic wasps that prey on aphids and caterpillars. Yellowjackets not only pollinate, but they prey on pests and scavenge, which helps to recylce organic material. Of course both wasps and yellowjackets can be very aggressive, which is not so great for the gardener.
- Hummingbirds are common pollinators and beautiful to watch. They focus on nectar rich red or bright pink tubular flowers.
- Bats are a very important pollinator. They are also an excellent predator, feeding on huge quantities of insects. Bats also deposit guano (bat poop), which is an excellent source of nitrogen and phosphorous.
- Ladybugs love to eat destructive insects that damage plants such as aphids, leafhoppers, leafworms, Thrips, scale insects.
- Praying Mantis eat mosquitoes, scale insects and Black Fly Larvae.
- Nematodes attack all kinds of soil pests including beetles such as leaf beetles, bark beetles, Saw Flies, June Bugs, Squash Bugs, Termites, Sod Webworms, Weevils and Japanese Beetle grubs. They also attack Cabbage Worms and Fruit Worms. Nematodes are microscopic predators that occur naturally in the soil and attack pests in a variety of ways. You can also add them to your soil, but remember that they are living organisms. Don’t just buy them off the shelf anywhere. Get them from a reputable nursery or dealer. Make sure you are getting the right species and handle them as directed so they don’t die.
- Ground beetles hide under rocks, branches and debris all day. At night they come out to take care of your cabbage maggos, cutworms and slug eggs.
- Lacewings also attack aphids and those ravenous army worms, as well as cutworms, leafhoppers, spider mites, and Whitefly.
- Ants are pollinators, seed distributors, and can control insect pests, destroy weed seeds and improve soil by aerating when they build nests. Certain ants can be problem pests of course, thinking of fire ants and carpenter ants. When you see a long line of ants soldiering along a path or up a plant, that often means there is something delicious they are all going after. Some sap sucking insect is probably producing honeydew as they devour your plant. Peony buds are always covered with ants. The peonies produce nectar that attracts ants, and the ant activity helps to open the blooms. The ants are not necessary to the opening, but they seem to speed it along.
- Worms do all kinds of wonderful things in the soil. They break up the soil and their tunnels allow more air and water to flow through the soil to plant roots. They mix the soil by pulling organic matter from the surface down into the soil. They break down the organic matter in the soil and leave behind castings, a wonderful fertilizer.
- Birds not only carry seeds and deposit them elsewhere to germinate, but they are predators. They eat all kinds of insects and worms, some of which are damaging to your plants but they do eat good guys too. Large birds like crows and hawks eat mice and even rabbits.
There are so many creatures helping out in your garden one article couldn’t possibly cover them all and their benefits. Most of the little critters out in your garden and hanging around your plants are the good guys. They are there because either they have an important propagation job to do, or you have a few bad guys hanging around that they will get rid of for you. So don’t go spraying chemicals all over, give the good guys a chance to do their work. And give those good guys a nice place to hang out while they wait for work. They each have their favorite plants, most like sunshine, and they all need water. Provide something constantly blooming, annuals are great because they bloom all summer and early and late blooming perennials extend the season for your pollinators. If there are specific insects or birds that you would like to attract, find out exactly what they love to create a perfect habitat for them.