Saving Our Pollinators

Pollinators are the motor the plant world depends on. These insects, birds and bats allow plants to reproduce and make the fruits and other foods we enjoy. They are everywhere, but they are also in decline. While crop scientists research exactly what is hurting these animals, the NC Botanical Garden is holding an exhibit called "Saving Our Pollinators" to educate the public.

Saving Our Pollinators
June 24, 2015

CHAPEL HILL — Summer at the North Carolina Botanical Garden means sun, flowers and lots of bees. If you want to see them, Botanical Garden Director Damon Waitt says you should look no further than the bee-balm plant.

“Right now it's just abuzz with different kinds of pollinators,” Waitt says. "I see wasps. I see honeybees. I see bumblebees. If you put the right plant in the right place, you’re going to attract the right pollinators.”

Attracting and supporting native bees and other pollinators is the goal of the Botanical Garden’s “Save Our Pollinators” exhibit. The exhibit, which runs from June until October 2015, includes 29 events such as gardening workshops, lectures and children’s activities.

“Last week was National Pollinator Week,” Waitt says, “but we don’t think a week is long enough to celebrate pollinators so we made it a two-and-a-half month event.”

Most flowering plants depend on pollinators to shuttle pollen from the male parts of the flower to the female ones. This allows the plants to make seeds.

But according to Mary Jane Epps, a postdoctoral biology researcher at NC State University, just because bunches of birds, butterflies, bees and bats visit a flower, they will not necessarily pollinate it.

“Pollination is really this interesting combination of what comes to a flower and also the behavior of those species visiting the flower and how they interact with the flower structure,” Epps says.

Epps recently demonstrated this in her study of the flame azalea flower. She found that even though bees, beetles and butterflies all visited the flower, the butterflies were doing all the pollination.

“Tiger swallowtail butterflies were the most common butterfly,” she said. “They would come to these flowers and they would flap their wings a whole lot, and while they flapped their wings, they would hit their wings onto both the male and female reproductive parts of the flower.”

In fact, when she kept the butterflies off the flame azaleas, pollination dropped almost to zero, as the other bugs were not hitting all the parts of the flower.

This is slightly troubling because many pollinator species — including types of bees, birds, bats and butterflies — are in decline due to climate change and habitat loss. Epps says this decline might spell trouble for some plants.

“For some plant species, they can easily be pollinated by many different insects; whereas a lot of other plants, like the flame azalea, may depend on just one or two things for its survival. So if something happens to the tiger swallowtail, it may be really bad news for the flame azalea.”

That is why the Botanical Garden is dedicating two and a half months to saving pollinators. By preserving pollinator diversity, Waitt says, we can preserve plant diversity.

Waitt says, the exhibit and events will both have information on how to plant and manage your own space to promote pollinators and preserve plants. You can also find more information on the NC Botanical Garden's website.

“Saving Our Pollinators” will conclude in October with a pollinator-friendly plant sale, but Waitt says there are many other ways to help out the little machines that make our plants grow.

“You can provide cover for your pollinators with just debris piles. You can provide homes for solitary bees just by drilling holes in an old log,” Waitt says. “So there’s a million different things you can do support pollinator health in your own backyard.”

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

Related Resources: