By: Josh Plack
Every ecosystem relies to some degree upon pollinators. Our farm has a pollinator heavy philosophy. We avoid the use of ALL Synthetically produced pesticides. We also make strides to only apply OMRI listed pyrethrum, insecticidal soap, biologic, and neem oil very sparingly, and only when it’s safest for the bees and when infestations are beyond physical control measures. As a result, we are constantly amazed at the abundant diversity of pollinators that we see across the farm. From butterflies to humming birds to the native bee and wasp populations; this is a sign of an already healthy ecosystem.
Although there are many more pollinators beyond the regular Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) the vast majority of pollinators that have a direct impact on our daily lives from our food to our flowers belong to and order of insects known as the Hymenopterans. This taxonomic grouping contains over 150,000 species from several families of bees, wasps, sawflies, and even ants! Even sweat bees and yellow jackets are responsible for some pollination of countless species of plantae, not to mention the other ecosystem services they provide (i.e. hornets that eat flies, and wasps that are parasitoids of invasive and exotic species). Some are predatory, and others scavengers, but they all play a vital role in supporting the environment around us, by collecting/spreading pollen, as well as converting simple nectars into the most nutritious and stable sweetener on Earth, honey! Not to mention the food webs upon which they are interconnected (That we are also a part of). Butterflies and other non-hymenopteran Insects also pollenate, both in human systems and in nature. Butterflies and hummingbirds are not major pollinators…they go to flowers for the nectar, but also play crucial roles in our ecosystems.
Bees and Wasps
We have 1 honey bee colony on the farm, and are looking to overwinter all healthy colonies. They do a good job pollinating our cucurbits, clover, cleome, tomatoes, sunflowers, and apples. They love all the Lamiaceae (Mint Family) on the property. We have carefully selected a myriad of flowers from numerous families of Angiospermae, across families as well to suit the pollen and nectar needs not only of our cultured bees, but also for the hundreds of species of native pollinators and predatory Hymenoptera. Beyond that there are numerous species of native wildflowers that already support a diverse population of native bees.
Apidae: Honey Bees, and more
It was once thought that honeybees and wasps evolved from a common ancestor, however more recently the consensus seems to be that they evolved directly from wasps! The difference comes in how they feed their young. Bees are the vegetarian cousin of wasps preferring pollen for protein, whereas wasps tend to be either predatory or parasitic. My personal observations corroborate said theory.
Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.)
Not only important in the native ecosystem but also as agricultural pollinators. Bumble bees are on the decline in North America, so providing them with a pesticide free habitat in which to pollenate my tomatoes along with other crops would seem pertinent. We often see them on the Coneflowers, the Bee Balm (Modarda), and in the fall, Goldenrod and Asters become important pollen sources.
Squash Bees (Peponapis spp. and Xenoglossa spp.)
As the name would leave one to believe, these bees go after cucurbits, but prefer the ones with larger flowers. This bee is the only bee to have migrated on its own because of the spread of human agriculture! When wild squash and melons were first domesticated they found them just as attractive. As cultivation of squashes spread throughout North America they literally show up wherever squash are planted. . .like magic!
Mason Bees (Osmia spp.)
There are over 140 species of mason bees. Their small size (similar to a honey bee) and their hairy bodies make them a gardeners best friend! They are called mason bees because they use mud to build their nests in small gaps, hollow stems, and other dark cavities. Mason bees can be spotted on a number of garden vegetables, and are actually used commercially to augment European honeybee pollination. Even more interesting…they are immune to Varroa mites!
Sweat Bees (Halictidae)
These little guys and gals enjoy the smaller flowers out there, but they can still be spotted on larger flowers like celosia (cockscomb) as well as zinnias, lemon balm, and thyme. They also feed on the not so sweet nectar secreted by Homo sapiens. OUCH!
Wasps: Sub-Order Apocrita
Everything in Hymenoptera family that is not a member of the groupings above are considered wasps. Including yellow jackets and hornets of the Vespidae. Some of my favorite insects on the farm are wasps, as they play a number of ecological roles! They pollenate my Peppers in the hoophouse. Encarsia Formosa are a parasitoid of whiteflies in the greenhouses. Tricogramma attack worms like that of the squash borer. Braconid wasps are a parasitoid of hornworms in our Solanaceae crops (Peppers, Tomatoes, Eggplant) While others yet (4 whole families) are predators of many small insects that would reap havoc on our crops.
There are over 1000 species of Butterfly in the vast deciduous forests of the North American Continent. The Butterflies are abundant in the extensive gardens here at Wine Creek Farm. With every glimpse, several species may be sighted. And rightfully so amongst the flower rows its a pollinators paradise!
The Monarchs and Swallowtails seem to especially enjoy the Zinnias and Dahlia. The monarchs favorite flower is the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and their caterpillars love to eat the foliage. The black Swallowtail (Papillion polyxenes) caterpillers resemble monarchs, but primarily feed parsley, Dill, and Fennel. The zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar (Eurytides marcellus) exclusively feeds on the foliage of Asimina triloba, or better known as Paw Paw. We have about 50-60 Paw Paw trees planted here on the farm to support them.