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  • Writer's pictureBethany Plonski

Pollinator Power

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.

Carpenter bee
Carpenter bee

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.

Gray hairstreak butterfly on butterfly weed
Gray hairstreak butterfly, one of my favorites

Cloudless sulphur butterfly on butterfly weed
Cloudless sulphur butterfly

Small bee hovering over butterfly weed
A small bee, possibly a leaf cutter

Wasp on butterfly weed
Wasps also count as pollinators, and I loved this one's blue color

Thread waisted wasp on Black-eyed Susans
An aptly named thread waisted wasp

Fly perched on a leaf
Another unsung hero of pollination: the fly

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.

Small fly perched on a leaf
Flies represented one of my highest category counts for the census - some are so small they are easy to overlook

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.

Honeybee
I don't see many honeybees in my own garden, so I always jump at the chance to photograph them

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.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on purple coneflower
Happy day! I've had a ton of Eastern tiger swallowtails in the yard this year

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.

Gulf fritillary on coneflower
Gulf fritillary

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower
American lady butterfly, which can be distinguished from painted lady butterflies by the number of eye spots on its hindwing

Southern pink moth on black-eyed susan
Southern pink moth on black-eyed susan

Gulf fritillary on Mexican sunflower
Gulf fritillary on Mexican sunflower

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?


Ruby-throated hummingbird visiting a salvia plant
Hummingbirds are a great example of win-win pollination relationships in nature

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.


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