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In The Country

The birds and the bees of Plants

Tim Iverson

(5/2017) They say April showers bring May flowers. What that euphemism leaves out is that it also brings seasonal allergies and that yellow-green film coating the hood of your car. Yes, spring is in the air and so is pollen. While the Earth is shaking off those winter doldrums itís also shaking out billions upon billions of those barely visible specks. While bothersome to us those specks are sparks from the fire of life and of huge importance to plants.

The basic biological goal of any living thing is to reproduce. For plants seeds carry out this function. Through pollination a plant can receive or exchange genetic material from another plant to create seeds. Seeds are what grow into a plant and can only be produced when pollen is transferred between plants of the same species. Pollen is a fine powdery substance containing genetic material. Succinctly, pollen is plant sperm. Flowering plants and trees produce pollen which is then carried by insects, animals, or the wind to ensure reproduction. Cross-pollination occurs when pollen travels from one plant to another. Birds and insects travel from plant to plant or tree-to-tree unitentionally collecting and leaving pollen as they go. Pollen is also carried through the air via the wind. When pollen leaves the stamen (the male part of a plant) and lands on the pistil (the female part of the plant) the plant is fertilized and can reproduce. This is the birds and the bees of plants, and without the birds and the bees most plants would have a difficult time of reproduction.

Pollinators are drawn to plants to drink the nectar from the flowers. Pollen then attaches itself to the animal's body. When that animal visits another flower pollen can fall off into the flowerís pistil, which can result in the successful reproduction of the plant. Plants can do remarkable things to make sure all this happens. The same things that make flowers attractive to us is appealing to wildlife as well. We, of course, can smell their fragrance and see their vivid colors. When it comes to vision many birds and insects have the ability to see light in the ultraviolet spectrum. While we just get a sunburn from UV light, pollinators see an array of colors and patterns invisible to us that act as a billboard advertising the nectar within.

Pollinators come in different forms. They consist of butterflies, birds, bats, and insects of all different kinds. The one most are familiar with though is the humble bee. Bees are synonymous with pollination and have been in the spotlight for the past decade due to decreasing populations. In a recent report from the USDA it is estimated that, "Pollinators, most often honey bees, are also responsible for one in every three bites of food we take, and increase our nationís crop values each year by more than 15 billion dollars." With the sudden inexplicable loss of a significant pollinator we should be alarmed. For the past decade honeybees have suffering from what is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD, by definition, is a colony with either no adult bees or surrounded by dead bees but with a live queen and may or may not have honey or immature bees. It is still largely not understood and it is happening in droves.

Over the past few years neonicotinoid pesticides, like RoundUp, have been under intense scrutiny and examination as a potential factor in declining bee populations. Most research scientists agree that a host of factors are creating the perfect storm that is crippling bee populations. However, the link between this type of pesticide and the affect it has on pollinators is only beginning to be understood. Pollinators are intricately interwoven into our food system and economy. Simply, their importance canít be overstated. Pollinators are directly responsible for 85% of flowering plants, 35% of global food production, add more than $24 billion to the US economy, and provide $26 million worth of pollination services in Maryland alone.

Consensus amongst the scientific and natural resources community is that pollinators are being exposed to these pesticides and real harm is occurring as a result. This is where consensus ends. Despite sensationalist newspaper headlines there is no significant data or statistical link that shows exposure directly leads to colony collapse disorder or drops in pollinator populations overall. Arguments can be made in favor or opposition of why recent legislation may or may not be necessary or government overreach. What you cannot argue is the data we currently have, and it resoundingly declares that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting pollinator health.

While the government and universities are diving head first into the problem there is a lot a private citizen can do help the cause too. Selecting certain plants to encourage pollinators will attract and strengthen local species. Plants like milkweed, ironweed, coneflower, goldenrod, and asters are favorites of pollinators as they provide essential food and habitat. By planting native plants in home gardens homeowners and gardeners can sidestep the pesticide issue entirely. Native plants generally require no fertilizer or pesticide. As a result, they protect both pollinators and a homeowner's budget. These plants have evolved to live right here in our local ecosystems and require little attention for survival. They have grown accustomed to weather and climatic patterns and have natural defenses against predators and disease. The Maryland Native Plant Society (www.mdflora.org), the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/) offer resources on native plants for our region and locations where they can be found for purchase.

In 2016 the Maryland House of Delegates and state Senate passed legislation (the Pollinator Protection Act) that would ban the sale and use neonicotinoid pesticides to consumers, but excluded farmers, certified pesticide applicators, and veterinarians from the ban. Maryland is the first state to pass such legislation. The legislation saw wide bipartisan support. Governor Hogan didnít sign or veto the bill, but instead left it unsigned allowing the bill to become law and it will take effect beginning January 1. In April the Maryland state legislature passed another bill to amend a previous law requiring the State Highway Administration and the Department of Natural Resources to create pollinator habitat on lands they own or manage. This supplemental bill requires that these agencies do not use pesticides that are toxic to pollinators, granting an exception for public health emergencies, and allows more flexibility as to which areas are designated as pollinator habitats.

Spring, and pollen, is in the air. This gives way to the bright blooms and buzzing bees necessary for the next generation of plant life. With time and a cautious approach we can hopefully reverse the downward spiral of declining pollinator populations. While more research into the issue is underway there are meaningful avenues we can take to mitigate losses. Native pollinators contribute billions to the economy and ecosystem and are too significant to idly let them vanish. Human intervention is likely required to tackle a human caused problem, and an all hands on deck approach is important to protect and encourage these species. By being proactive, being responsible, and being stewards we may be able to right the ship.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson