Pollinator Gardens, by Claire Doyle, for UCF’s Earth Day Service, April 17, 2016
Here we are today, gathered together to do something positive for Earth Day, a time when we are encouraged to honor our Earth. By “honor” I mean repair, replenish, and rehabilitate; to save our riparian landscapes, our fields and timberlands, our oceans and rivers, our animals and plants.
I must confess though, that I am deeply pessimistic about the condition of our Mother Earth, and I have been for some years. What grieves me so much is the many extinctions of animals and plants. Extinction means that the Carolina Parakeet, the Bali Tiger, the Golden Toad, and last year’s one remaining Eastern Cougar, will never again live on our blue planet Earth. Nor will you see the Hawaii Chaff flower, the St. Helena Olive tree, the Cry Violet, or the Mason River Myrtle. These are just the tiniest fraction of the non-human life to die in the 20th and 21st centuries. Primarily these creatures and plants perished due to habitat loss, global warming, or were hunted to death—all human activities.
But I don’t want to continue on a dark note. Thinking about Earth Day and ways to reinvigorate our planet, I had a hard time coming up with what I could do—something beautiful and practical, something more tangible than donating to environmental causes, something I could do, given my limited resources. One day, like manna from the divine, I received in the mail the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog of native wildflowers for restoration and gardening. Then I knew what I could do—I would try a pollinators’ garden with plants that attract and feed butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Nearly every plant in the catalog attracts these three pollinators.
Hummingbirds are tiny, tiny creatures. The males, more colorful than the females, show iridescent throat features called gorgets. Hummers can fly amazingly fast—between 25 and 50 mph. They are scrappy, too—they will fiercely chase away other birds from their food supply. Hummingbirds feed on flower nectar, a sugar-rich liquid produced by plants. Because they have an extremely high metabolism, they have to consume their weight in nectar every day. When they feed, hummers’ bills fit perfectly into the long tubes of flowers. As they are feeding, their foreheads rub against the flower stamens (where pollen is produced) and they collect the pollen. They then move from flower to flower, pollinating as they go. Hummingbirds have quite good memories and will remember food sources from previous years. Outside my back porch door, I have blue salvia. The flowers of blue salvia are tubular and just right for hummers’ beaks to drink nectar from. The hummingbirds absolutely adore it.
Four thousand native species of bees live in North America; each one is a pollinator. But not all of them have hives, like those of honey bees, which are not native. (Honey bees and their hives were brought here by white settlers.) Some bees live in a little hole in the ground, all by themselves. Others find homes in brush and shrubs. Bees have an aptitude for locating flowers through smell, colors and patterns, and a good memory to keep going back to the same flowers that yield a good harvest of pollen. Bees are the most efficient pollinators because they carry and spread about 80% of flower and tree pollen. They are just crazy about goldenrod and cardinal flower, which I have ordered from the Prairie Moon catalog.
Butterflies gather pollen when they light on a flower. Like bees, adult butterflies feed on flower nectar. They are also host-specific and lay their eggs on a finite number of native plants. Caterpillars of some butterfly species like asters, black-eyed Susan, clover, lupines, milkweed, sedum or violets. Aspen, birch, cherry, hackberry, oak or willow trees make caterpillars of other butterfly species equally happy. These creatures taste with their feet, which is where their taste sensors are located. By standing on their food, they can taste it to see if their caterpillars are able to eat it.
A word about Monarchs. They are endangered due to habitat loss, so it’s up to us to provide host plants for them. Adults and larvae alike will eat nectar only from milkweed. I have ordered two types: Rose Milkweed, a pretty dark pink and Prairie Milkweed, an equally pretty light pink.
Recent studies about the decline of all pollinator species (and those include moths and bats) is very disheartening. Honeybee populations have been in steady decline for a decade, and just last year the number of Monarch butterflies migrating south has been the lowest ever recorded. And the big furry bumblebee (he or she does not sting) is disappearing too. As a result, in 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum to all federal agencies to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators across the country.
What better natural example of our UU 7th Principle--respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—can there be, other than a pollinator garden? Our three fascinating pollinators share many of the same food sources, provide us with a vital environmental resource, and give us endless beauty and pleasure. I truly hope for this Earth Day all of you will consider planting some of the flowers necessary to feed remarkable animals.
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Corrina has put out pollinator friendly seed packets in the social hall. Pick up a packet and plant them now according to the directions. There’s also a list of pollinator plants I ordered from Prairie Moon and a Butterfly Gardening Fact Sheet from the Xerces Society.