[courtesy of Macphail Woods]

Flowers & pollinators

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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When wandering around a forest, it is the overall health of the ecosystem that most often captures my attention. Is there a diversity of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, mosses, etc? It can be a long list, as there are hundreds of plants native to this province. Is there a lot of wildlife in the area, everything from birds and mammals to amphibians and insects? Or not, which is too often the case in our woodlands.

As I learn more about forests, my interest in diversity keeps growing. When thinking about insects and pollinators, I was always drawn to the flowers of shrubs such as willow, serviceberry, and hawthorn. These native shrubs flower very early in the year and are important sources of nectar and pollen for a wide variety of bees, wasps, flower flies and other pollinators.

One of the things that has piqued my interest lately is the work being done on using willows, especially native ones, around blueberry fields and orchards. They are very attractive to a wide range of pollinators and provide important food sources so that these insects stay around even when there is no food available from the fruit crops.

A recent article in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science, titled “Willows as pollen and nectar sources for sustaining fruit and berry pollinating insects,” provided some interesting insights into this topic. And yes, I know this continues to paint a picture of me as a plant nerd. Guilty, for sure.

The authors recognized that wild bee populations have been “declining due to loss and degradation of nesting sites and floral resources, landscape fragmentation, intensive agronomic and monoculture practice, displacement of native floral hosts by exotic plants, use of pesticides…” In response, they studied insect populations on willow plantings and the timing of when they had food available for pollinators.

One of the conclusions drawn was that “With the multitude of problems currently facing honey bees, native willows could be used to support the diversity and abundance of wild pollinator populations and enhance pollination and associated fruit and seed set in many agricultural crops.”

This is an example of trying to work with nature to try to find solutions, and to do that, you must have a good understanding of the environment.

More information about pollinators and their needs came from a friend with a much deeper knowledge about both native and non-native pollinators. It was she who, on an early spring walk, pointed out the bees making great use of flowers on nearby red maple trees.

None of our native trees have big, showy flowers, so we tend to dismiss them as food sources. But all of those maple keys, birch seeds, and acorns started as flowers. Red maple flowers are quite beautiful, and there are thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, on a mature specimen in the spring. If they flowered mid-summer when there was lots of other food around, they might not be so popular. But in the spring, that’s when they shine!

Keep an eye out for the swelling red maple buds, and when the flowers emerge, it has been best described as a “blaze of red” decorating the trees. On a warm day you’ll see bumblebees, honey bees, mason bees, wasps, hover flies and many other insects feeding on both the pollen and nectar.

These are just a few of the many native species that help create diversity within our forests. Especially with growing concerns over the health of our pollinator populations, we need to keep improving the health of our ecosystems whenever possible.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.