One of my favorite things about this time of year is the pollinators. Late-blooming plants are buzzing with activity, so it’s a great time to stop and admire the tiny creatures who are working hard all around us.
I recently participated in the Great Georgia Pollinator Census, so I thought it would be a good time to share some pollinator photos. Participating in the census is easy—you simply choose a plant (preferably something that is attractive to pollinators), watch it for 15 minutes, and record all of the pollinators that visit the plant during that time.
I chose butterfly weed (ascelpias tuberosa) and purple coneflowers to observe because they have been some of the busiest plants in my yard this year. The pollinator census breaks pollinators down into categories (carpenter bees, bumblebees, honeybees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths, and other insects), so you tally the number of insects you've noticed in each category and upload your information to the census website.
I'm sure I'm not the only person who was surprised that flies are considered pollinators. But in fact, flies are second only to bees in their ability to transfer pollen. And this is why people are already starting to research how flies can help offset the impact of declining bee populations. Although we tend to view flies as pests and nothing more, we may one day be thanking them for helping us save our food chain.
The only categories I did not observe at all were bumblebees and honeybees. Sadly, this is to be expected. A variety of factors are contributing to colony collapse disorder for honeybees, and at least four species of bumblebees have declined 96 percent in the last 30 years. Next time you notice a honeybee or bumblebee (which you can distinguish from a carpenter bee because it it fluffy all over its body versus mainly on its thorax), take a moment to appreciate how rare it is.
Butterflies are one of the first insects that come to mind when people think of pollinators, but interestingly, some naturalists argue that they should be regarded as “flower visitors” rather than pollinators. Although butterflies spend a lot of time nectaring at flowers, their visits rarely result in the successful transfer of pollen. In this regard, bees are much more effective pollinators.
This isn’t to say that butterflies and moths aren’t important in their own way; caterpillars, for example, are absolutely vital to supporting healthy bird populations. And because butterflies and moths are beautiful and incapable of stinging, people are often more receptive to the idea of protecting them than bees. But most actions we can take to support pollinators help both butterflies and bees alike, so I’m not too fussy when it comes to these kinds of distinctions.
Another interesting fact: many plants have evolved their structure and appearance to provide a greater reward for the pollinators who are mostly likely to help them transfer pollen successfully. In the shot below, you can see the top of the flower touching a ruby-throated hummingbird’s head. That is no accident; the flower is perfectly sized to transfer a small amount of pollen while the hummingbird enjoys its nectar. Isn’t nature amazing?
Pollinators have so much to offer us, both practically and aesthetically speaking. I love that activities like the Great Pollinator Census encourage people to take on the role of citizen scientists. I'm all for slowing down to look closely at the world around us. There’s a lot of power in the simple act of giving something attention. But you don't have to wait for an opportunity like the pollinator census to start paying attention. I encourage you to take some time—even just a minute or two—to watch the pollinator activity in a garden or other wild space. You’ll be surprised how much is going on at your local parks or even in the weeds on the side of a road or a parking lot.