Bumble bees play a middle-C musical note to shake pollen from tomato flowers. (Photo by Mace Vaughan)
One odd detail that always intrigues folks attending my pollinator conservation workshops is the fact that bumble bees create an audible middle-C musical note to shake the pollen out of certain flowers. They do this by clamping down on a flower with their jaws, and then vibrating their flight muscles up to 200 times per second. To see it and hear it on a summer afternoon in your garden is a small act of magic.
In the case of heirloom tomatoes and blueberries, two plants that do not freely release pollen from their flowers, this bumble bee music has special resonance. Imagine shaking salt from a saltshaker; that’s the challenge confronted by bees trying to extract pollen from those flowers. The release of that pollen and the act of spreading it between other flowers is what ultimately produces the fruit that graces our tables. Domesticated honey bees can’t shake flowers the way bumble bees can, which makes wild bumble bees especially important for some of our favorite foods.
Even a single flower in a flowerpot can help pollinators, but for larger areas pollinator habitat can even replace lawns, eliminating the need for mowing and sustaining bees and butterflies at the same time.
The story of bumble bee pollination makes a good case for why we should care about and celebrate all pollinators. Whether we look to wild plants that sustain wildlife such as songbirds and bears, or the nearly two-thirds of our food crops that require pollinators to exist, we can find similarly fascinating events constantly unfolding. Consider just a few examples:
Your Halloween pumpkin is likely pollinated by native squash bees that emerge around 4 am, returning to their underground nests at sunrise, before the farmer even knew they were there.
The Madagascar dark chocolate and vanilla in your baking pantry grew alongside rare jungle orchids pollinated by giant hawk moths with 14-inch long tongues.
The little weedy wildflowers that you see when driving down the interstate are home to small blue butterflies that, as caterpillars, trick ants into standing guard around them, protecting them from predators.
These fascinating stories are what make pollinator conservation so rewarding to be involved with. And as awesome as these stories are, the connections that exist between pollinators and ourselves are also fragile and complicated. In the last year, scientists at my organization, the Xerces Society, and other institutions concluded that roughly 1-in-4 of our 45 species of bumble bees in North America are edging close to extinction. And another iconic pollinator, the monarch butterfly, has declined by nearly 90% in the past 20 years.
Those are grim statistics, however there is still reason for hope. Every day I am lucky to work with farmers all across the country who are creating habitat for these important animals and trying to reduce pesticide use. Through these partnerships we are planting miles and miles of flowering hedgerows and native wildflower strips as refuge for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. These habitat areas sustain pollinators when crops are not in bloom by providing pollen and nectar throughout the growing season. These same areas also sustain other beneficial insects — those that prey upon crop pests — reducing the need for insecticides.
And best of all, this strategy isn’t limited to farms. Anyone with garden space — even if it’s only a balcony flowerpot — can take an active role in saving our pollinators. The process is simple: First, plant native wildflowers. It doesn’t matter how many, but the more the better. Sunflowers, bee balm, anise hyssop, and milkweed are some of the best. Second, protect those flowers — and indeed your entire garden — from insecticides.
Working on farms such as this almond orchard, the Xerces Society is creating habitat for bees with large-scale wildflower plantings and hedgerows. (Photo by Jessa Cruz)
Right now in Whole Foods Market stores we are launching our annual Protect Pollinators campaign to raise awareness about pollinators and the struggles they face. Look for signage and informational displays to learn more about the role these incredible animals play in sustaining us. You can also learn more about alternatives to pesticides and how to select and plant wildflowers from the Xerces Society.
Are pollinators important to you? Share what you’re doing to protect them and inspire other readers.
Eric Lee-Mäder co-directs the Pollinator Conservation Program at the Xerces Society. In this role Eric works with farmers and agencies like the USDA and the United Nations to enhance biodiversity in agricultural lands across the world. His background includes previous work as a small farm educator, and crop consultant for the wildflower seed industry. Eric is the lead author of several books including Attracting Native Pollinators, and Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.