Seeds are planted, watered, washed with sunlight, charged with electrons during a thunder and lightning storm and nurtured to maturity. We as humans absolutely depend on this process. But so do the pollinators. Those hard-working players in this ecological balancing act are active in our gardens 24/7.
Birds, bees, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, ants and yes, even the lowly flies have important beneficial duties to perform in the garden. Flowers, fruits and vegetables have adopted elegant systems to attract carriers, and attach and distribute their pollen for optimum survival of the species.
To a bird, insect or bat, your garden is a metropolis filled with neon signs and billboards advertising its goods. The neon signs and billboards are the flower petals. They attract attention using color, including ultraviolet markers, fragrance, shape and size. The ultimate reward for the transporter is the sweet and nutritious nectar of the flower. The base of the sign is the flower stalk, which is designed to hold the flower high enough to be easily seen. This insures it won’t be trampled by insect and critter traffic on the ground before it has a chance to be fertilized.
A bee has seen the ultraviolet nectar sign and beats a path to its target. Hairs on the bees abdomen are statically charged to help hold the pollen as it brushes the anther, which is the male part of the plant that produces the fertilizing powder. Bees also have built-in ‘saddle bags’ and ‘baskets’ on their legs and body parts to transport the pollen to the next flower. Once the pollen is brushed off onto the sticky stigma (female part of the plant), it travels down the stigma’s tube to the ovary and ovules at the base of the flower. There each ovule becomes a new fertilized flower seed. And that is the ultimate reward for the flower!
Evolution has further modified plants to provide just the right size nectar tube to accommodate the exact size critter tongue. For example, moths hover to feed, so they need a flat flower with a deep tube to match the length of the moth’s tongue. The flower will be white or very light in order to be seen in the moonlight, and it will be heavily scented to be found in the dark of night.
Bats work the nightshift as well. Those flowers that open after sundown and are extremely fragrant, large, showy and white with larger pollen grains will attract our echo-locators’ attention. They have bristles on their tongues to which some pollen sticks as they lap up the nectar. It is then transferred to the next flower from the bat’s head, feet and tongue. Larger, tougher flowers will accommodate the bat’s head without damage. Additionally, bats can consume thousands of harmful insects each night. I’d hate to think where we’d be without their vigilance!
Bees are particularly attracted to yellow and blue colors as well as sweet smelling plants. The flower tubes of these plants just happen to be the right size for the bee’s tongue to reach. Interestingly, snapdragons can only be ‘unlocked’ by a bee of the right size and weight to ‘provide the right key’ to open the ‘magic door’ to the ‘treasure room’.
Conversely, butterflies do not have a good sense of smell, but they can see the color red. Did you know that they ‘taste’ with their feet? They have highly sensitive receptors that tell them if they are on the right nectar-rich plant, or on the edge of a yummy mud puddle full of minerals and moisture necessary for their survival. Flowers that produce clusters of smaller flowerettes create a good landing pad for the butterflies so they can sip securely.
Those plants that store their pollen inside the anther rather than on top, such as the tomato, need to be shaken to make sure the pollen is released through the pores of the stamen. Bumblebees provide this service. They land on the flower and then vibrate their wings, and voila!
Beetles are another flying creature that can benefit a garden. They love the spicy or fruity scents of large greenish or off-white flowers. Since beetles have fairly efficient chompers, these particular flowers have developed armor to protect the delicate ovules from damage as the beetles go about their pollinator task.
Hummingbirds have a good sense of smell and are drawn to red, orange and pink tubular flowers in your garden. I’m sure you’ve seen a hummer sipping nectar from a hanging fuschia or potted petunia. They require flower petals that are curved away from their fast-beating wings as they feed. Pollen is transferred to their chest, beak and head in the process.
Songbirds do not have a strong sense of smell, so they seek brightly colored flowers such as red, orange, pink, yellow and purple. They not only spread pollen via their beaks, heads, chests and feet, but distribute the seeds that they have eaten via their droppings. A location where birds congregate on a regular basis will yield ‘surprise’ gardens, which have automatically been planted and fertilized by our beautiful aviators.
Additionally, birds consume a huge amount of insects. Bugs that can do damage to our flowers, vegetables and fruits are fed to baby birds as a nutrient-rich protein source. This helps the baby birds grow fast and strong. Adult birds benefit from consuming these protein snacks as well. Blue Jays even use ants to ‘comb’ their feathers and repel other insects with the formic acid they exude! Thankfully, our backyard birds do a number on vast quantities of insects every day.
All this biodiversity insures a vastly varied gene pool. The larger the gene pool, the better the chance a lot of different species survive to reproduce. Resist the temptation to swat a bee or squash a ladybug. Remember, they do great things for our orchards, farms and gardens.
Without birds and other flying creatures to provide these essential benefits to our gardens we would be overrun by harmful insects, which would then destroy our wonderful flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. Even if they weren’t done in by insects, without the pollination process so efficiently performed by our pollinator friends, there would be no more flowers, veggies or fruits. Our ecological balance would be destroyed and us along with it. That’s how important these vastly underrated birds and other flying creatures are to all of us!