If you have ever tried to grow or maintain anything green here in Western Washington, at one time it has sadly probably died on you. Let’s be honest, shall we? It’s a rite of passage for the flower, fruit or vegetable gardener to accidentally have a plant not make it, or have your prized blueberries not produce much, or have most of the zucchini flowers fall off, leaving you with only a few puny zukes. Sometimes it’s the weather, and sometimes it’s us.
Either way, we could all use a little help growing things in our Pacific Northwest climate. One of the best helpers we can enlist in our gardens and fields are native pollinators, especially native bees. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with a small backyard flower or vegetable garden or something larger, providing habitat for local pollinators can lead to larger and more abundant yields.
Why Native Bees?
Native bees (especially mason and bumble bees) have proven themselves to be more efficient and effective pollinators than European honey bees. Native bees are more active in cooler and wetter climates (like ours) and forage earlier or later in the day than honey bees do.
Also, native bees have a wide variety of foraging behaviors compared to honey bees. When honey bees forage for nectar, there is no interaction with the pollen-producing parts of the flower in many orchard crops, leaving those crops either under pollinated or not pollinated at all.
Conversely, our native orchard mason bees forage for both pollen and nectar, which greatly increases the potential to pollinate crops. Certain native bees have specialized to work with only one type of flower.
The bumble bee for instance, has a unique characteristic – buzz pollination – that helps with cross-pollination of blueberries, tomatoes and peppers. During buzz pollination, the bee shakes her flight muscles while grabbing onto one of pollen-producing stalks inside the flower. This releases a rush of pollen that is attracted to the hairs of bee making for a quick and efficient way of collecting of pollen. While tomatoes don’t actually need a pollinator to produce fruit, this buzzing activity can increase the size and number of tomatoes.