Photo: Monarch butterflies are essential pollinators and the milkweed is essential to monarchs. – Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That’s a lot of good-tasting fruits and vegetables.
Without our pollinators, those plants won’t bear the food we need, and our plates and stomachs would be much emptier.
Not every plant needs an insect pollinator. Wind also plays a role in the pollination process, and essential cereals and grains like wheat, corn and rice, are pollinated by the wind.
However, it’s a commonly held observation among scientists that one of every three bites of food humans consume exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths, beetles and other insects, and birds and bats.
Unfortunately, pollinators are in varying stages of peril. Worldwide, scientists have observed the number of pollinators is declining, and they are working to find ways to reverse the process.
Bees are the main pollinators for all types of fruits. Researchers are busy, working to identify why bee numbers have declined, and find solutions to the worrisome Colony Collapse Disorder, an event where most worker bees disappear, leaving the colony’s queen bee and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. Some of those causes range from loss of habitat and pesticide use, to the bees’ choice to change habitat, mites and viruses.
Protecting pollinators can become complex. Sometimes the problem is handled on a large scale. Sometimes, it becomes something as simple as planting a wildflower garden near your home with native plants, followed by maintaining it with natural, organic methods.
Every group of pollinators deserves respect, but understanding what pollinators need allows a better understanding of what can be done to protect them.
For Monarch butterflies whose numbers have steadily declined for several decades, one way to help is to identify the native plants they need for survival. As monarchs have diminished, so have the monarch’s only host plant—the milkweed.
Without the milkweed plant, monarchs can’t survive. It’s the only plant the monarch’s larvae, caterpillars, can feed on, and the only plant female monarchs choose to lay their eggs.
The milkweed’s nectar contains elements that are toxic to most other creatures, but protects the adult monarchs and their offspring (caterpillars) from predators. It is also an important nectar source for native bees, wasps and other insects seeking nectar.
In Nebraska, one astute observer, Greg Wagner, recently asked an important question:
“Seen many milkweeds lately? I didn’t think so. They continue to disappear at a disturbing rate. But, who cares? What’s the big deal? They’re just milkweeds anyway, right?”
Wagner, who is a public information officer, Communications Division, with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, is aware the loss of milkweed plants is serious business.
“Monarch butterflies,” he notes, “which migrate through Nebraska, cannot survive without the milkweed. Their larvae will feed only on it. Female monarchs need it to lay their eggs.
“According to National Geographic, the trouble is not only in Mexico with deforestation, but fewer and fewer monarch butterflies are crossing North America to winter into Mexico, and the culprit is the dramatic reduction of milkweed plants in the United States.
“The milkweed comprises a very important group of wildflowers that produce a key nectar source for pollinating insects and animals critical to our environment, food supply and economy. With its broad leaves, seed production and soft-bodied insects it attracts, it is also an essential habitat component for birds like the ring-necked pheasant.”
Read his recent Milkweed Blog here http://magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/2017/06/107530/.
In Nebraska, there is an active, on-going conservation effort to plant milkweed plants to keep monarchs pollinating and migrating. Planting efforts appeared previously in Young Bucks.
But at home, in backyards everywhere, planting milkweed for a native flower garden is something that can be easily done. The effort shared in home gardens across the county helps not only monarchs, but other pollinators as well.
Milkweed plants are herbaceous perennial wildflowers with more than 140 species, some of which are grown commercially to produce allergy-free pillow filling.
There are many varieties of native milkweed plants, and many sources for seed and information on how to plant it. Here’s one source.
The National Wildlife Federation offers 10 ideas on saving pollinators, click here.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service also takes a look at pollinators, click here.
– All photos credit: Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission