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Pollinator Predicaments

Climate change affects the lives of birds, butterflies and bees

Pollinators matter! Right under our noses a huge community of ants, butterflies and bees are hard at work to make sure the world gets fed. The climate crisis is turning up the heat on these poor guys, and our many-legged friends are at risk. Here’s some information on how pollinators are still doing their best to help us out.

A solitary silver bee perches on a yellow flower to drink nectar. Notice the yellow pollen on its legs which it will bring to the next flower it drinks from. | Photo by Rand Rudland

Flowering plants and pollinators have a unique relationship with one another. Ecologists and biologists pay attention to special events in these organisms’ lives which mark growth and development. The science of studying life events is called phenology.

Ideally a pollinator will hatch from its egg or develop from its pupa and leave the hive around the same time its flower of choice blooms. The timing of these life events is important because if a bug emerges too early or late, it may miss a plant’s flowering completely. No flower equals no food, and that’s no good.

After emerging, the pollinator goes searching for nectar. The sweet liquid is energy-packed food for bugs. When a pollinator lands on a flower, it picks up pollen. As it continues to look for nectar, the pollen is shaken off and sticks to other flower’s pistils, the female organ of the plant. Pollen travels down a shaft to fertilize the ovary, which begins to go through mitosis and eventually produces fruit.

Tayloranne Finch and Melanie Honda are two farmers working on the Bayside Park Farm in Sunny Brae who get to interact with pollinators every day. Without pollinators, their farm would be a bunch of fruitless bushes.

Finch said the farm was working with the City of Arcata to build a permanent solution, a perennial native pollinator garden. The garden would have year-round plants that local pollinators prefer, supporting the local habitat organically.

Tayloranne Finch, left, and Melanie Honda, right, are farmers at Bayside Park Farm. They spent a sunny afternoon pollinating corn by walking through the rows, swaying their arms back and forth. Every week is a volunteer friday at Bayside Park Farm on Old Arcata Road in Arcata, CA 95521. | Photo by Collin Slavey

“We’re installing plants that will be there forever. It makes it easier for pollinators to establish themselves on the farm and it is mutually beneficial for us,” Finch said.

Small changes in abiotic, or physical non-living factors, can alter life events. There are many changes in an ecosystem that can affect how a plant or pollinator does its job. Dr. Rachael L. Olliff-Yang and Dr. Michael R. Mesler published a paper in 2018 titled The potential for phenological mismatch between a perennial herb and its ground-nesting bee pollinator.

In the paper they investigate how temperature affects the phenology of the silky beach pea (Lathyrus littoralis) and its main pollinator, the ground-nesting solitary silver bee (Habropoda miserabilis).

“Temperature best predicted both flowering and bee activity, although soil moisture influenced the timing as well,” the paper said.

Their findings imply that in the face of the climate crisis, an average increase in temperature may cause the silky beach pea and the solitary silver bee to fall out of sync.

“Comparison of linear regression slopes of phenology against temperature suggests that bee nesting time is more sensitive to differences in seasonal maximum temperatures, and may advance more rapidly than flowering with temperature increases,” the paper said.

A bumblebee looking for lunch landed on this flower to get a drink of nectar. The bee will help pollinate nearby flowers as it continues on its flight. | Photo by Collin Slavey

Olliff-Yang and Mesler said that it’s important to understand what factors influence flowering and pollinator activity. Their investigation into the bee and the pea is just an example of a broader issue in the world.

Building habitat is invaluable to local animal communities, as shelter, food and water are critical needs for every living organism. The most simple thing to do is to plant native plants in the front yard, as this will attract local pollinators.

Local nurseries like Mad River Gardens will be more than happy to teach you about native plants and how you can attract and support our flying friends. As active members of the ecosystem, we all need to do our part.

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