8 na­tive plants for pol­li­na­tors

The Bay Chronicle - - SITUATIONS VACANT - NEIL ROSS

Most of us want to wel­come wildlife into the gar­den. Who, af­ter all, would turn their back on a but­ter­fly bask­ing in the be­go­nias or not get a buzz (lit­er­ally) out of a cloud of bees mak­ing merry in the mar­jo­ram. But wait a minute… what ex­actly do bees do be­yond mak­ing us feel like we are some sort of eco war­rior?

The bugs – la­dy­birds, the bees, but­ter­flies, moths and flies – don’t all hang out be­cause of us. They come, drawn by greed, to gather up the de­li­cious good­ies flow­ers have to of­fer, both the dusty yel­low pollen which is rich in protein – per­fect for feed­ing young – and pos­si­bly more tempt­ing still, the sweet sug­ary nec­tar which pro­vide an in­stant en­ergy hit.

Not all flow­er­ing plants pro­duce these good­ies for the bugs but the ones that do, do it not out of the kind­ness of their hearts but to trick them into fer­til­is­ing their flow­ers as the bees squeeze, shake and rub them­selves at the din­ner ta­ble, spread­ing male pollen onto ripe fe­male stig­mas. It’s a sort of pro­gres­sive meal with ca­sual sex thrown in. But that job of pol­li­na­tion is more im­por­tant than you think. It un­der­pins our food pro­duc­tion, and en­sures the an­nu­als and bi­en­ni­als in your gar­den seed about and bloom next year.

While most of the grains and ce­re­als of the world are wind pol­li­nated, it’s reck­oned that 80 per cent of all crops re­quire in­sect pol­li­na­tors if they are to set seed and fruit. When you think about it, even cows and sheep need suc­cess­ful pol­li­na­tion of plants such as clover and other ni­tro­gen­fix­ing legumes to keep their grass­lands nu­tri­ent rich.

And while we sow veg­eta­bles such as car­rots, spinach, radish and to­ma­toes – and don’t need or want them to set seed – with­out pol­li­na­tion and seed set­ting, the spe­cial­ists who sup­ply us and the farm­ers with seeds would go out of busi­ness.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Brad Howlett from Plant and Food Re­search, New Zealand is a big player on the world stage when it comes to pro­duc­ing new, top class food seed va­ri­eties. He ex­plains that while the bee­keep­ers in New Zealand are do­ing a good job man­ag­ing the po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of var­roa mite, farm­ers still need to bring in man­aged colonies of pol­li­na­tors ev­ery year for crops such as av­o­cado, berries and ki­wifruit to get fruit set, and there is po­ten­tial for se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion for the avail­able hives.

In our gar­dens, we can play our part, en­cour­ag­ing as many in­sect pol­li­na­tors as pos­si­ble. Not just for our ben­e­fit – the pol­li­na­tion of our or­chards, berries and squash – but for the ecosys­tem as a whole. Honey­bees are great at pol­li­na­tion and nu­mer­ous, but like la­dy­birds and bum­ble­bees, they are merely wel­come ex­otics do­ing a good job.

What we need to change, says Brad, is our at­ti­tude to the less glam­orous na­tive in­sects that are equally im­por­tant in the pol­li­na­tion game. Dingy moths, hov­er­flies that un­com­fort­ably mas­quer­ade as wasps yet can­not sting, bee­tles and flies all play their part pol­li­nat­ing our na­tive flow­ers. Some, like the hov­er­fly, even have a sec­ond trick up their sleeve – their lar­vae vac­uum up das­tardly aphids and cater­pil­lars as they go. Yet we don’t seem to wel­come them as gladly as we do a cat­walk­ing but­ter­fly.

And wouldn’t it be ex­cit­ing to feel by our plant­ing that we are en­cour­ag­ing our truly na­tive bees? Of the few species of na­tive bee, most live soli­tary lives and are ex­tremely re­luc­tant to sting – un­like honey­bees and bum­ble­bees. So fill your patch with flow­ers, es­pe­cially na­tive ones more in rhythm with the life­cy­cles of na­tive bugs. Per­haps pro­vide a bank of sunny soil for them to dig into and nest too.

The best way to draw in pol­li­na­tors of all ilks is rel­a­tively easy – plant as many flower types as you can. Put them in an in­sect­friendly place – a sunny, shel­tered spot is ideal.

Avoid the fussy dou­ble flow­ers which in­sects find hard to climb into and spread the sea­son of flow­er­ing wide. While manuka and met­rosideros may be great in spring, don’t for­get rata, hebe and ho­he­ria for sum­mer and be­yond.

A di­ver­sity of flower shapes and sizes is im­por­tant; colour less so (red flow­ers tend to be de­signed for pol­li­nat­ing birds; flies and bees pre­fer yel­low, or­ange and white).

Re­search in Bri­tain sug­gest that pol­li­na­tors do not of­ten dis­crim­i­nate be­tween na­tive or ex­otic flow­ers but it’s al­ways nice to sup­port your lo­cal flora by choos­ing plants suited to home soils and cli­mate.

Make a note of the na­tives you see in your lo­cal­ity that are alive with in­sect life. Cordy­lines, flax, hebe, ho­he­ria, olearia and tea tree are a good ba­sic start­ing kit.

For­est and Bird has more in­for­ma­tion on com­monly seen pol­li­na­tors. Down­load Dr Brad Howlett’s list of great na­tive plant species to sup­port pol­li­na­tor di­ver­sity here.

Hebe is the largest genus of na­tive plants; nearly all 100 or so species oc­cur here and nowhere else. The tight clus­ters of flow­ers oc­cur from spring to late sum­mer.

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