Animals that assist plants in their reproduction as pollinators include species of bees, ants, bats, beetles,birds, butterflies, flies, moths, wasps and more. Wind and water also play a role in the pollination of many plants.
Wisconsin pollinators are critical to the economy and Wisconsin landscape.
Story and photo by Christopher Tall
A purple coneflower sways in the mid–summer breeze surrounded by the gentle hum of insects. These insect pollinators spend their days floating and alighting on flower petals, tramping through stamens filled with sticky entomophilous (insect pollinated) granules of pollen.
These insects are continually searching for food sources that sustain them, perhaps for the long Wisconsin winter ahead. While insects are searching for sweet nectar — attracted by a particular color spectrum of a flower or stinky odors from plants — they are little aware of the benefits they're providing: life for future generations of plants and propagation of commodities that humans depend on such as fields of grain and corn, and produce like fruits and vegetables.
The importance of pollinators
It's easy to take our produce for granted as we pick up groceries or visit a farmers' market. But it's hard to imagine Wisconsin without thinking of cherry trees, apple orchards or cranberry bogs. Think of the produce we cherish during the summer and autumn in Wisconsin: corn, squash, grapes and raspberries.
For each type of produce, there's a pollinator that has biologically developed over time to pollinate that specific fruit or vegetable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that there are approximately 200,000 animal species around the world acting as pollinators. Of these, about 1,000 are vertebrates, such as birds, bats and small mammals, and the rest are invertebrates, including flies, beetles, butterflies, moths and bees.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 150 food crops in the United States depend on pollinators. These foods include blueberries, apples, oranges, tomatoes and almonds. Pollinators help pollinate over 75 percent of our flowering plants and nearly 75 percent of our crops.
Rachel Mallinger, an assistant researcher with the Gratton Lab of Landscape Ecology of Insects and Arthropods at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, studies the effects of insect pollinators on Wisconsin agro–ecosystems.
"Pollination is important for Wisconsin's crops as well as Wisconsin's natural habitats," Mallinger says. "Many of our state's crops, including cranberries, cucumbers, apples, sweet cherries, strawberries and raspberries, depend on animal pollinators such as bees."
Pollinators provide an economic value to Wisconsin, but they also help gardens flourish and work to perpetually define the Midwestern landscape. Recent UW–Madison research shows that a Wisconsin landscape can also, in turn, affect pollinator success. In the case of native honey bees, landscape diversity matters.
"They need flowers, they need a diversity of flowers, and they need flowers from April through October," explains Mallinger. "Prairies, for example, would be a great habitat, but many urban gardens provide that as well. Then they need a nesting habitat, and this is where some of the more undisturbed areas like woodlots or prairies often have twigs, snags and stems."
If you look at a plot of land in Wisconsin, recent research suggests that the greater the diversity of ecosystems, including wildflowers and natural habitats (forests, prairies, fields, ponds and marshes), the greater the abundance and richness of various native species of honey bees. This may also be true for many other pollinators.
"Maintaining the abundance and diversity of plants in our native ecosystems in turn provides food and habitat for other organisms, and can positively affect soil and water quality," says Mallinger.
Helping pollinators in your backyard
There are a few pathways you could follow when promoting healthy habitats for pollinators in your own backyard or community garden.
"Citizens can plant flowers for pollinators, or leave flowering weeds such as dandelions in their yards or property where they don't interfere with other land use," suggests Mallinger. "In general, plant flowers that are native to the region and are known to be attractive to pollinators. For example, bees like yellow, white, blue or purple flowers. Monarchs need milkweed."
People can also provide nesting habitat for pollinators, particularly bees. Nesting habitat can include artificial nest boxes, or just leaving wood piles, snags and twigs around.
There are several opportunities to get involved in linking citizen science with pollinators.
The Xerces Society ( The Xerces Society ) for Invertebrate Conservation's Bumble Bee Watch Project ( BumbleBeeWatch.org ) is a collaborative effort to track and conserve bumble bees of North America by allowing you to upload photos of bumble bees and start your own virtual collection. The project also allows you to connect with experts and researchers to help you identify bumble bees and learn about ongoing conservation efforts.
The Great Sunflower Project ( The Great Sunflower Project ) gives you the opportunity to collect data on pollinators in your own backyard, community garden, school or park.
You can monitor butterflies through various citizen monitoring projects ( The Xerces Society ). Learn from experts how to gather data about butterfly populations, how to track and tag butterflies and more.
You can also find your own citizen–based monitoring projects to join in Wisconsin, many of which support pollinating species by visiting wiatri.net/cbm.
For more information on how you can help native pollinators, you can also visit the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum website at uwarboretum.org.
Christopher Tall is a communications specialist in DNR's Office of Communications.