Every spring, the 20-year-old blueberry bushes near our family home are covered in native bees. The trees reach 9 feet in the air and are covered with thousands of flowers for a few short weeks. During that time, the bushes roar with the hum of fat, fuzzy native North American bumblebees, one of many native pollinators. Though we keep honeybee hives less than 100 yards away, we almost never see honeybees on the blueberry flowers.
Because honeybees produce something of interest to humans, and that is directly measurable and tangible (honey), they are of great interest to us. Their declining numbers concerns those of us paying attention and looking far enough into the future to see the consequences. Even fewer of us pay attention to the fact that native bee and other pollinator populations are in decline, too.
Let’s look at a few of the 4,000 North American native pollinators and explore the ones we’re most likely to see on the continent and in our backyards and gardens.
The plants that rely on bats for nighttime pollination are largely tropical, and not many occur in North America except in regions such as south Florida. However, there are 45 bat species on this continent, and they are hugely beneficial. Speaking in terms that directly affect humans, bats greatly reduce mosquito, fruit fly, caddis fly and mayfly populations. Their most direct threat is loss of habitat: Just about any structure, natural or human made, that protects from the elements and includes an overhang for roosting is ideal for bats.
Most native North American bees are solitary, the exception being the bumblebee. Like honeybees, bumblebees nest in family groups called colonies. These native pollinators are social bees, just like honeybees. Native bees are responsible for pollinating a variety of vegetable and fruit crops, flowers and forest plants.
Beetles & Flies
Some species of flies are critical native pollinators, and many are mistaken for bees. Often, the coloring of flies will mimic those of bees, such as being striped in yellow and black.
Next to honeybees, butterflies are getting the most attention of the threatened insects, probably because they’re so beautiful and beloved. They are incredibly important as native pollinators, too, and their hard work deserves notice. There are more than 700 species of butterflies in North America, and the catch with their declining populations is that their life cycles are closely tied to certain plant species that support the growing creature at various life stages. When that habitat and those plants are eliminated, so, too, are the butterflies.
These woodland birds are native pollinators, migratory in nature, moving south for the winter and feeding along their migration routes. As they feed on nectar-producing plants, they pollinate in return. Some species of plants have evolved to rely on the hummingbird for pollination.
These tiny insects are attracted to pollen and nectar, just like honeybees, and in the process of collecting both are incredibly beneficial. They consume aphids, scale and flies, to name a few, helping restore balance in a garden. Gardeners who know them are grateful for their presence, allowing many home gardeners to go without chemicals and instead support wasp populations. They’re called parasitic because their eggs are laid on insects such as the hornworm caterpillar and, upon hatching, the young wasps consume their host.
Native pollinators such as bees can be supported in the same ways you would support honeybee populations. Eliminate spraying any pesticides or herbicides in your yard or garden. Organic sprays for certain crops exist that are considered relatively safe for pollinators; seek those out when needed. Encourage friends and neighbors to do the same by spreading information and sharing your efforts on social media. Provide a water source in the form of a fresh water feature in your garden such as a pond or bird bath. Plant copious amounts of wildflowers. When areas of your garden aren’t in use, plant flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables, and don’t mow them down until late in the season. Finally, leave a patch of your yard or garden wild, even through the winter; this offers valuable year-round protection and winter habitats for a variety of species.