Building a highway of pollination
They are known as “the pollinators” — the 349 species of bees that have been recorded in Connecticut along with more than 100 species of butterflies, the ruby-throated hummingbird, and even flies and beetles.
It’s numbers like these that highlight how important these essential pollinators of plants are to the local environment. Talk of the birds and bees filled the air of Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room on Feb. 22 as the Wilton Land Conservation Trust hosted a meeting with the Fairfield County Regional Conservation Partnership attended by representatives of 19 towns.
The partnership includes all 23 towns in Fairfield County, which work together to try to connect open space, rights-of-way, and stream buffers, since plants and animals know no borders. Last Wednesday’s meeting focused on how to connect pollinator habitat and how everyone, from government officials to home gardeners, can create a healthy pollinator habitat. All types of property can play a role, from grand meadows to residential back yards.
Connecticut is the first state to adopt a pollinator bill, passed by the legislature last year, that seeks to reinstate native habitat and restrict substances toxic to bees in pesticides.
Dr. Kimberly Stoner, a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) in New Haven, spoke about protecting bees from pesticides. Of primary concern are neonicotinoids, commonly referred to as neonics, a group of systemic insecticides that affect the nervous system of insects. The ones most likely to be used by homeowners are known as imidacloprid and dinotefuran, which would be listed under “active ingredients” on a container of insecticide. One common product containing dinotefuran is Miracle Gro Plant Food. A variety of Ortho Bug B Gon products contain another neonic called acetamiprid. By the end of this year, these insecticides will no longer be available to general consumers.
When these substances are applied, the plant takes them up and they spread through the plant tissues. Insects then ingest the poison while feeding on treated plants and die. In the case of bees, they can ingest a neonicotinoid through the nectar and pollen.
Neonics target the same site in an insect’s nervous system as nicotine in a human’s. However, they have been found to be of low toxicity to humans and other mammals, Dr. Stoner said.
It is believed that native bumblebees are more susceptible to the toxicity of neonics than honeybees. Of the 16 species of native bumblebees, two are believed to be extirpated from Connecticut, meaning they have not been seen here in a long time.
Despite this, Stoner said, it is not known if the total number of bumblebees has decreased, and if the bumblebee population collapses it is not known what effect there will be on plant diversity. “There are people studying rare plants and how they are pollinated,” she said.
Complicating all this are the commercial bumblebees available for pollination in greenhouses, which carry pathogens that may affect other species of bumblebee.
Gardens can be an important resource for many bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Research shows gardens are important habitats for bumblebee nests, and even yards dominated by lawns, but not treated with pesticides, can support as many as 111 species of bees.
Gardens planted with diverse native plants offer a real boost to area pollinators and other wildlife. Native butterflies, moths, and bees evolved with native plants. When the native caterpillars feed on native plants they can turn into butterflies or moths, or provide food for birds.
Some species of bees are known as generalists, meaning they will feed on a variety of plants, but there are 61 species of bees in the Northeast known as specialists that will feed their larvae only pollen from one or a few types of native plants. Information on these bees may be found in a publication called A Citizen’s Guide to Creating Pollinator Habitat in Connecticut, available on the CAES website, ct.gov/caes.
Dr. Jennifer Mattei, of Sacred Heart University’s department of biology, spoke more to butterflies and hummingbirds.
“If you want hummingbirds, plant plants rather than feeders,” she said. Feeders attract ants, and the sugar water used to fill them can get rancid.
While it is well known the birds are attracted to red tubular flowers, she has seen them go to other types as well.
Whether attracting bees, birds, or butterflies, they all require nectar sources from April through October.
Some early plants include:
- Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea).
- Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).
- Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum).
- Marsh Blazing Star (Liatris spicata).
- Red clover.
- Marigolds (not pompoms).
- Zinnias (tall, flat-topped varieties).
- New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).
- New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
- Verbena (V. bonariensis).
Plants that will support butterfly larvae include:
- False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
- Pussytoes (Antennaria)
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
- Parsley (Petroselinum)
- Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
- Milkweeds (Asclepias spp)
- Stinging Nettles
For butterfly habitats, consult the Connecticut Butterfly Association and the Connecticut office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service for plants that will support various species of caterpillars and adult butterflies.
Other resources: butterfliesofmassachusetts.net ; massbutterflies.org .