June is pollinator month, and although the month is concluding, the work of these vital creatures is never done. To illustrate their importance, I spoke with Luther College’s Dr. Kirk Larsen, entomologist and professor of biology, about all things pollinators. Below is our conversation, slightly edited for clarity.
Connor Hopkins: To start off, can you explain to me what you would define a “pollinator” as?
Kirk Larsen: A pollinator is an organism that helps plants reproduce by bringing pollen from one flower to another. And, pollination is required for flowering plants to reproduce. Without the pollen transfer, you don’t get sexual reproduction, you don’t get the fruits, you don’t get the seeds, that type of thing.
The pollinators include a variety of different animals that visit flowers, primarily either to feed on their nectar or the pollen—because pollen is a very good source of protein and the nectar, of course, is a very good source of sugar. These animals include some species of birds, including hummingbirds like we have around here which are really good pollinators, some species of bats, we’ve got lots of butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and then the bees. And the bees are probably the most effective pollinators, because their bodies are designed to carry that pollen on the surface of their body back to their hive or nest.
CH: Can you talk a little bit about your expertise in this field?
KL: Well, I’m an entomologist, so I study insects, but I wouldn’t consider myself a pollinator expert or a bee expert. We’re just getting into studying bees in northeast Iowa, and we’re really looking at different types of native bees. We’ve done a little bit of work on bumblebees the last few years and now we’re expanding into all the native bees. There are several hundred species of native bees that live here in northeast Iowa and then there’s the honeybee. There’s a couple hives of honeybees on campus here and honeybees are very effective pollinators, but they’re not native. They can sometimes out-compete the native species of bees and so we’re just trying to study and figure out what kinds of native bees we have here in northeast Iowa, and once we know that—and understand what they’re feeding on—we can go and start to make decisions about how we manage our natural areas to effectively increase bee populations.
CH: What work have you accomplished at Luther regarding pollinators, and what work are you looking forward to possibly doing with pollinators?
KL: So, one of the things we have done is make the college a “Bee Campus” several years ago through the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation and they have this Bee Campus and Bee City USA program. So, we’re now a certified Bee Campus USA, one of the first in Iowa, and it involves a variety of things that have happened. There’s been research by several faculty members and students in the past on bees, and we are just trying to understand what pollinator diversity there is [in the area]. I have two students working this summer on the bees that are right in amongst the flower beds on campus and comparing that with what is out in the natural areas on campus.
The college has undergone a lot of change with their landscaping—when I first came to Luther [in 1993], almost all the flower beds around campus were annual flowers and non-natives. Now, many of those beds are perennials–plants that come back year after year–and many of those are native species of plants.
The native species of plants serve as much better hosts for native species of insects like the native bees. Many of the native bees spend the winter in the stems of different plants, they don’t live in big hives like the honeybee does. The majority of native bees nest in the ground, but many of them nest in these plants. And so, if you have a perennial plant, they [the bees] can nest in those. So, over time, this landscaping shift over to native plants has been very effective.
We also have a significant number of prairie plantings on campus, we have over 120 acres of prairie now just on the Luther campus, and that’s a native-dominated habitat that is perennial, that provides habitat for these bees. The bees are very important pollinators and we need them for our agricultural production. You know, we have been managing our campus prairies and woodlands to remove invasive species and make sure the native species are being successful.
There’s also been a real shift to reduce herbicide use on campus. It hasn’t been totally eliminated, but it is much less than it used to be. We’re working on an integrated pest management (IPM) plan for campus, it’s not in effect yet but we’re working in that direction. Because the herbicides kill a lot of the plants that might serve as hosts early in the spring for the bees. Some of our other actions include our natural areas land manager having native plant sales and giveaways, and we have a few courses now that talk a little bit more intentionally about pollinators. And all of this is encompassed as part of our Bee Campus USA efforts.
CH: In talking a lot about the efforts Luther College is making to help out pollinators, what are some things that people in the broader area can do to help be friendly and in the spirit of this “Bee Campus” program?
KL: So, I think the main things that people can do are: think about what kinds of flowers you’re planting; think about how you’re managing your lawn; particularly making sure you’re landscaping using native species of trees and shrubs and flowers—you don’t have to use those exclusively, as there are some species of annual flowers that work really well for pollinators, flowers like zinnias for example have lots of pollinators visit them—but just thinking about the kind of plants you put in your yard and maybe reducing mowing a bit and planting more flowers. If you have a vegetable garden, you’ll want to have pollinators around as they will increase your production. Really, one of the most important things you can do is planting native plants in your yard.
Pollinators = survival
From Dr. Larsen himself, the biggest thing that we need to take away from Pollinator Month is that pollinators are important to our survival, and if we expect to continue enjoying the natural landscapes, flora and fauna of the Driftless region, we need to take care of the creatures that make this verdant area thrive. That includes restoring native species of plants in our landscape, reducing pesticide and chemical use, mowing the lawn a little less and being a little more in tune with the natural areas around us.
To put it simply, pollination is one of the fundamental building blocks of how entire ecosystems survive. Without pollination, there is no reproduction, and without reproduction, everyone loses out on plant life—including the very plant life that gives us food.
When it comes down to it, pollination is more than just the birds and the bees, it’s something that everybody relies on.