What is Pollination?
If you’re a fruit grower, you likely already know how fruit trees reproduce and produce fruit. First, pollen from the anthers (male part of a flower) is transferred to the stigma (female part of the flower), where it germinates and eventually fertilizes the female cell. At this point, seeds and the surrounding fruit develop. This fruit is your cash crop and guarantees the next generation of plants. So who does the transferring, then? It turns out the “birds and the bees” of fruit trees is literally about birds and bees.
Picture a Pollinator
Simply put, a pollinator is any creature that visits a flowering plant to enjoy pollen or nectar and then transports pollen on its body to other plants. What do you imagine when you picture a pollinator? If, like many folks, you’re imagining a bee, you’re correct! There are many different types of pollinators, though, including bats, wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, flies, and some small mammals. Even so, bees are the heavy lifters of pollination, as well as the only ones that actively collect pollen. Bats, birds, butterflies, and others go after nectar.
Pollinators are critical to our ecosystems, food systems, and orchards. Unfortunately, across the world, climate change and habitat destruction are decreasing the number of pollinators. Fortunately, there’s a lot that growers like you can do in your corner of the Earth to boost pollinator numbers to the benefit of your crops and the environment.
It’s all about natives
Let’s revisit that image of a bee. What kind of bee are you thinking of? Lots of people who think about pollinator decline want to save the honeybees, who were introduced from Europe in the 17th century. Although honey is delicious, these bees are not who we rely on for food or who really need help.
Instead, our focus is on native bees. In California alone, there are over 1,600 species of native bees. Unlike social honeybees, most native bees are solitary and live underground or in wood instead of hives. They come in various shapes and sizes, from as small as a quarter inch to longer than one inch (looking at you, Valley carpenter bee). Native bees have many different markings, prefer different plants, and remain active during different seasons.
Don’t be too concerned about stings from native bees, either. Not all bees sting, and native bees are mainly harmless when they’re out foraging for food. However, they don’t protect food resources, only nesting areas. You can mitigate any negative run-ins with native bees with good practices, which we’ll check out in a minute.
Pollinators in your orchard
Some types of fruit trees can self-pollinate, meaning they don’t need the help of pollinators to produce fruit. However, some research suggests pollinators can help even these types of trees grow larger and more fruit.
If you produce fruit that requires pollination, supporting pollinators on your acres can directly help your crops. For example, according to UC Davis, the California watermelon and almond growers who support the presence of pollinators on their properties have increased yields. Similarly, blueberry growers see increased yield in Michigan when they support native pollinators on their acres.
Some citrus growers have partnerships with honey producers because citrus pollen makes some delicious honey.
Maybe you just want to do your part to support populations of pollinators. At FGS, supporting biodiversity and populations of native pollinators is part of our commitment to sustainability.
Four Ways to make your orchard more pollinator-friendly
Whatever your reason is for supporting native pollinators, there are several easy things you can do on your property to help. Let’s look at how you can make your orchard more pollinator friendly.
It’s important to know that native bees have a smaller forage range than honeybees. They’re not going to commute to your orchard from far away, so the best thing to do to get the benefits of pollinators is to support their ability to live on your property. Here are four things to keep in mind:
- As part of your integrated pest management plan, consider only spraying pesticides at night during citrus bloom, when bees are asleep.
- Embrace bare patches of soil. Ground-nesting bees are attracted to bare patches of soil, and maintaining them takes even less effort than trying to get something to grow there!
- Leave deadwood around the edge of your property. It makes excellent habitat for many solitary native bees. Remember how we said native bees don’t guard food sources, only their nests? You can mitigate this by ensuring you set up any enticing bare soil patches or deadwood areas in areas of your property where people don’t frequent.
- It’s still all about natives. Probably the single best thing you can do is plant native plants on your property. In California, more and more growers are planting pollinator habitats. According to UC Davis, native wildflower habitats in agricultural settings attracted six times the number of native bees and three times the diversity compared to the unplanted controls in the study, all without attracting pests. Good deal, right? Native plants evolved in California conditions, meaning they are more drought tolerant, need less water and maintenance, and are particularly suited to the native bees that evolved with them. You can strategically plant native wildflowers between rows or at the edges of fields, where plants won’t impact your operations.
Agriculture is a critical component of conservation. We wouldn’t have much of our food without pollinators, and it’s simple to take some actions to support them. This UC Davis resource can help you select species of native wildflowers and walks you through planning, establishing, and maintaining a pollinator-friendly planted site on your property.
Looking to learn more about pollinators and their role in your growing system? Reach out to us via our contact form below!
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