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Athens News Matters: Pollinators Bring Us More than Flowers

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It’s the afternoon, maybe lunch time for a lot of you, and looking at your plate you probably see an array of colors, maybe tomatoes, peppers, squash, and some fruit like blueberries, apples and peaches. Well, next time you take a bite out of one of these foods, you can thank insect pollinators for it.

“It's often stated that one out of every three bites of food that we eat is a direct result of insect pollination," according to Lauren Muller, the conservation outreach coordinator at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

Insect pollinators are very important to humans for the delicious, healthy foods they bring us, but they're also important for their work in natural systems. Native plants are reliant on insect pollination as well to form fruits and seeds, as well as to reproduce; thus, pollinators play an integral role in this part of the ecological system. They also serve as a food source for birds, and for other small animals. Without insects, we would have a lot of issues, but not a lot of food.

The importance of insect pollinators is well established and is one of the reasons scientists and others are so concerned by their decline over the past few decades. According to Kris Braman, professor and department head of entomology at the University of Georgia, "there is concern, and with the honeybees, there's concern for insect decline and colony decline. And that is a complicated issue. There are a number of factors involved. And probably the number one issue is parasites, varroa mites. And then, of course, there's complications related to pesticide use, and then just loss of habitat." Two of the concerns Braman just stated -- pesticide use and loss of habitat -- can be traced directly to humans.

To try to mitigate the damage people cause to insect populations, USDA researcher Karen Harris-Shutlz teamed up with UGA researchers Shimat Joseph and David Jesperson to find out how we can create bee-friendly lawns, which, as Braman stated earlier, means taking a fresh look at how we use - or don’t use - insecticides. Especially if you have centipede grass in your yard, where a lot of these insects live.

"If you're applying insecticide to your lawn, our first study showed that these pollinators are really present within a centipede lawn. And so of course, you're going to accidentally kill a lot of them," says co-researcher Shamit Joseph. However, it's not necessary to completely eliminate insecticides from your yard if you don’t want to. According to Joseph, “We can select some insecticides that are less harmful."

People who want to support helpful insects can also create habitats for them, as demonstrated by the "Connect to Protect" program at the Botanical Gardens. Says Lauren Muller, "This (the Connect to Protect program) is our signature pollinator garden certification program, where we provide folks with the resources necessary to establish pollinator gardens in a variety of settings...A Connect to Protect garden can really look like anything, and it can be found anywhere, but they do all contain primarily native plants."

UGA’s Kris Braman agrees. "They need floral diversity." Bees and other pollinators require flowers with nectar and pollen that bloom across all seasons. This can be achieved by planting multiple flowering species. But what should people who are afraid of pollinators, like bees, do? First, realize that these insects are mostly harmless.

"Probably the number one thing is overcoming the fear factor of bees," says Braman. "It's just a matter of people understanding. You know what these are and that they're unlikely if ever to hurt, harm anybody. And they're so important." And that's the most important thing to remember about bees and other pollinators. We need them not only for the flowers they provide but for the food on our plates.

The following are tips anyone can use to get rid of mosquitos without harming pollinators:

  1. Avoid leaving dishes of water out (think pots and dog bowls)!
  2. Keep your gutters clean
  3. Use mosquito dunks

For more information, visit Protecting Pollinators from UGA Extension.

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