Pollinators have been busy doing their thing ever since the first flower opened to attract them. They haven’t gotten much press until quite recently, though. People knew at some level that they were important and that almost all of the fruits and vegetables we eat depend on them as well as many important forage crops for livestock. The fruits, vegetables and forages always seemed to be available, so we naturally assumed that they were being pollinated effectively and gave it little more thought. Until recently.
Perhaps it was the increasing plight of the once ubiquitous monarch butterfly that began to raise awareness. Although they are relatively minor players as pollinators go, they are big and beautiful. Everybody loves them. Those qualities are important to catch people’s interest, and monarchs have become the poster child of a movement that is gaining steam to save the pollinators. They share the new focus on pollinators with honey bees, a specie that has vast economic importance and has also experienced increasing survival difficulties in recent years. It’s important to understand that these well-publicized species are but two of a vast number of creatures including thousands of insects, some birds and even bats that support pollination of flowering plants. All of them are important.
Most people my age spent their childhood summers barefoot at least part of the time. We learned to be careful after stepping on a bee or two while running across yards studded with yellow dandelions and white clovers (this was before the days of yard chemicals to get rid of anything but green grass). If my feet could take it (they couldn’t), I could walk barefoot for miles across grassy lawns today and never worry about a bee. My lawn still has some dandelions and clover, but honey bees just aren’t there anymore. Some bumble bees still visit my flowers, as do a few wasps, butterflies and moths. I left common milkweeds growing in a moist soil flower garden in a wet spot in my yard, and even planted some orange butterfly and red marsh milkweeds for any passing monarch butterfly to enjoy. I could count the monarchs I’ve seen there on one hand, though. A least my apples, squash and tomatoes still get pollinated by some kind of bee or fly or wasp or other insect — so far. They couldn’t set fruit if it weren’t so.
The USDA has gotten on the bandwagon to save the pollinators with special cost-share programs to encourage planting pollinator seed mixes that have lots of flowers and now include milkweeds for monarchs on CRP lands. A recent article told how some RAGBRAI riders threw mud balls with milkweed seeds into road ditches along the way. I suppose it makes sense at a certain level because road ditches are just about the only places that permanent vegetation still survives in mile after mile of Iowa countryside. Busy highways are the last place you’d want to attract butterflies, though. The busier the road, the more it can become a death trap as the delicate little insects fly slowly along at just the right altitude to get smacked by speeding vehicles. A monarch butterfly stands little chance of survival if it accidentally flies out into the traveled portion of a road for even a short time as it tries to migrate along a well-flowered highway or even a busy county blacktop ditch. It takes lots of fuel for a monarch to fly to Mexico. That fuel comes only from flower nectar that, unfortunately, may be found only in road ditches along much of their journey.
Monarch butterflies and honey bees may be the poster children for pollinators, but they represent a host of hard working creatures that must be present in good numbers if most of the world’s flowering plants are to produce fruit and seeds. The world isn’t as friendly a place as it used to be for them. Grain crops are wind pollinated, but the fewer species there are to pollinate flowering plants, the more vulnerable we all become to loss of productivity of many of the plants that provide food for us and the animals we raise. As with most things in nature, diversity is critical for health. Loss of it leads to problems.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.