Pollinators and Native Plants
In this podcast we talk with invertebrate biologists and the horticulture director of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. We discuss the relationship between native plants and their pollinator pals, and how honeybees are not necessarily the best pollinators out there. They just have better press. In fact, honeybees may play a part in native been decline. But it’s not all bad news.
Pollinators and Native Plants
Season 1 Episode 3
Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.
Cecilia Nasti: Native plants and their pollinators—such as bees, butterflies, and beetles—are easy to take for granted. That’s because they do their work quietly in the background while we benefit from their relationship.
Pollinators help certain flowering plants with their reproductive efforts which results in seeds that grow into new plants. Or produce fruits, nuts, berries and other items we rely on for human consumption. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these plants and animals play a key role in our survival.
Yet, pollinator populations are in decline worldwide, due in part to habitat loss, which means loss of native plants. If these native flora and fauna weren’t around to do the pollinator polka, Earth and everything on it would …
Ben Hutchins: The world as we know it would be unrecognizable without pollinators.
Cecilia: Ben Hutchins is an invertebrate biologist and we’ll hear more from him and other folks on the podcast when we talk about pollinators…plants… and you…
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Ben Hutchins liked dinosaurs as a kid…as well as lions and tigers and bears…
But what really captured his imagination were invertebrates. Which eventually lead him to his career as an invertebrate biologist and a gig at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Ben: So, I’m working with any animals without a backbone: insects, snails, spiders, scorpions, creepy crawlies…
Since we spoke, Ben’s taken a position as a researcher at Texas State University in San Marcos. Nevertheless, if anyone can convince you that creepy crawly spineless things are worth your deepest respect and admiration—it is Ben Hutchins.
Ben: These animals make up the vast majority of the biodiversity of the planet. They make up the majority of the overall biomass of the planet. And, if you take a look closely, these animals are just some of the weirdest looking animals you’ve ever seen, they’re doing the strangest things that you can imagine. And a lot of times they’re doing it right under our nose, and we don’t even notice. So, to me, they’re sort of like the secret little residents of the world that are just curious to no end if we just kind of stop and get down at their level and can see them and see what they’re doing.
What many of these little guys are doing… is pollinating native and cultivated plants. In fact, 80% of native plant species in Texas require the aid of a pollinator. And globally, between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants need pollinators to help with… well…you know.
Ben: So, without those animals, the plants that make up our iconic Texas scenery—wouldn’t be here. And you know, most of the animals we think of in Texas directly—or at least indirectly—depend on those plants for survival as food or habitat. Right? So, pollinators are helping to create the foundation of Texas habitat.
A pollinator’s influence extends beyond our ecosystems and into our economic systems and digestive systems as well. In the U.S. between $18 and $27 billion worth of food production relies on the direct contribution of pollinators. One out of every three bites of food we take in this country is courtesy of a pollinator.
Ben: If you’re a person that eats food—and I expect that most of your listeners are—then we should be interested in pollinators.
Cecilia: Without pollinators you can kiss your morning coffee and you’re your avocado toast buh-bye.
Woman's voice: Oh my God!
Cecilia: I know, right? We’d lose our favorite foods and trendy treats if not for pollinators.
When it comes to these hard-working invertebrates that do so much and ask so little, there’s good news and bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way.
Ben: So, globally, there’s lots of data out there showing that pollinator populations are declining. Some of those research papers are pretty depressing to read when you look at how widespread and how pronounced some of those population declines are. And it’s for a lot of different reasons: it’s habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, increased exposure to herbicides and pesticides, parasites, climate change… the list goes on and on in terms of threats to pollinators. So that’s the bad news. And it’s led to lots of species becoming federally listed. Species, uh…some species are going extinct.
The good news is that here in Texas we still have a lot of native or semi-natural space. And so, at least some of the relatively recent studies in Texas are showing that our populations of pollinators are doing pretty good. What that means is not that we don’t have a pollinator problem, it means that we have time to plan and to decide what we want our pollinator populations in Texas to look like, 10, 20, 30 years from now.
Find links to resources for helping pollinators at underthetexassky.org. And later in the podcast: taking pollinator protection into our own hands and landscapes…even if that landscape is just one flower pot on a high-rise balcony…but first…
This is Under the Texas Sky …from Texas Parks and Wildlife…. I’m Cecilia Nasti…with a riddle. If you have beauty in your eye, what are you holding in your hand? I’ll say it again… If you have beauty in your eye, what are you holding in your hand? Shout out the answer if you know it. For the rest of you keep listening until the end of the podcast for the reveal.
Support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. In fact, since 1991, the Foundation has raised more than $170 million to conserve the lands, waters and wildlife of our state. You can help by becoming a member. Find out how at WeWillNotBeTamed.org
When I say pollinator…you say… I heard “bee”. And when I say bee…
Michael Warriner: Most people, when you say the word “bee”, their mind automatically goes to the European honeybee.
Cecilia: European honeybees, while well-known, are not from these parts.
Michael: Those originally come from Europe and North Africa, and they were brought here with the first colonists back in the 1600s.
Cecilia: In this segment, Michael Warriner shares his appreciation of all native bees, especially bumblebees. He cites them as underappreciated, yet highly important, pollinators in Texas.
The backyard of my childhood home was an oasis of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. All kinds flying and crawling insects found something to eat or someplace to hide in our backyard. I remember one shrub, called bristly locust that formed a huge thicket in a far corner of the yard. From April through July the branches heaved with great clusters of dark pink flowers that hung like grapes. When the buds burst open in spring—the bumblebees arrived.
Dozens and dozens of large, bushy black and yellow bumblebees rumbled up to the thicket to raid the blooms of their nectar and pollen. There were other bees and flies and beetles, too, but the bumbles were the most impressive. Those bristly locust flowers, like pretty girls at the neighborhood pool, didn’t get a moment’s peace all summer long. To be honest, I was scared of this hairy hoard of flying insects. Looking back, though, I wish I knew then what I know now about bumblebees, because I would have enjoyed them more and feared them less.
Michael: Bumblebees are basically big, flying balls of fur.
Cecilia: And what’s scary about a flying fuzz ball, am I right? Michael Warriner is a former Texas Parks and Wildlife colleague, and—like Ben Hutchins, whom you heard earlier in the podcast—is an invertebrate biologist. From Michael I learned there are nine species of Texas’ native bumblebees.
Michael: But each one of the nine differs a little bit in terms of how much yellow they have—let’s say, on the part of their body versus the rear. And so, bumblebees could be a new kind of hobby for folks. Birdwatchers have to learn hundreds of birds; there’s only nine bumblebee [species] in Texas. And so, it’s just a matter of learning their color pattern.
Cecilia: Michael has a soft spot for bumblebees, and after talking with him I can see why. These fuzzy fliers are awesome! He also introduced me to solitary bees. Did you know that approximately 90% of bees native to Texas are solitary species? Neither did I. But, back to the bumblebees…not only do they look impressive…but as pollinators … they’re the bomb. Or should I say: bombus?
Get it? Bombus. You know, because bumblebees are in the genus bombus. No? An entomologist would have laughed, I’m telling ya.
Moving on… From early childhood most of us learned that non-native honeybees are an important species because of their pollinating prowess. While that’s true, it’s not the whole story. We don’t hear much about native species whose roles are just as, if not more, important. Bumblebees and solitary bees work as tirelessly as honeybees… and do a better job with certain native and cultivated plants.
Michael: Bumblebees, although they aren’t talked about a lot as important pollinators, they also play a big role in agriculture. They’re the best pollinators of things like tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries and melons and those sorts of crops. They’re better and more efficient than honeybees.
Cecilia: Really. How do we know that?
Michael: Well, basically, the structures of the tomato flower and blueberry flower are such that hey require a certain special pollination called “buzz pollination”. Basically their flower are shaped like saltshakers. And to get the pollen out, they have to be shaken. And so, bumblebees and a lot of other native bees will basically come to a flower—like a tomato flower—and they vibrate their wing muscles. And that shakes the pollen out. Honeybees do not buzz pollinate. So they cannot as efficiently pollinate a tomato flower as a bumblebee can.
Cecilia: In recent years we’ve raised the alarm over honeybee decline. Yet, our native pollinators—that evolved with our flora—are in the same boat. Although their stories fly under the radar, Michael Warriner says we’d miss them if they were gone.
Michael: Yeah. Especially our native bees, like bumblebees because they’re so tied into the plant life here. They’ve adapted through hundreds of thousands of years to pollinate these plants. And these plants are dependent on native bees like bumblebees. Less so, honeybees. Honeybees aren’t necessarily geared toward pollinating a lot of our native plants. So, if we have a reduction in bumblebees that spells trouble for our ecosystems and the birds and the mammals and other insects that depends on plants for fruit or seeds or just a functioning ecosystem.
Cecilia: We can point to factors like habitat loss, pesticide use and introduced diseases and parasites that may impact the decline of our native bees. Want to hear something surprising? Honeybees are also suspected of being native bee buzz kills.
Michael: Honeybees have these tens of thousands of workers. So, they can potentially really lower the standing crop of food resources that flowers have. They can go out and basically monopolize a flower resource like nectar or pollen, and that reduces what’s available for our native bees. And there’s some research that suggests that the presence of honeybees in natural sites can reduce native bees.
Cecilia: Non-native though they are, honeybees will remain part of landscape, and will forever compete with our native bees, including the beauteous bumblebee, for resources. So what can we do? We can create more resources. Ahead: creating wild places for wild things…including pollinators.
This is Under the Texas Sky from Texas Parks and Wildlife… and standing in for Mother Nature…is moi…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
You might think that because I work at Texas Parks and Wildlife that I spend most of my time outdoors. Sadly…no. My job keeps me tethered to a computer for the majority of the day. However, when I can get out of the office and end up at a place like the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, well…it’s like going to Disneyland, but without the long lines…or the rides…or the giant stylized talking rodents dressed as humans…
Mickey Mouse: Hey…hey hi everybody!
Cecilia: Which, frankly, I’ve always found kind of creepy.
But the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas is like Disneyland for native plant nerds. Each garden bed takes visitors on a thrilling ride of imagination that inspires awe and wonder. I visited the center in December on one of those perfect winter days; the air was crisp and the sky a bright blue. Just walking onto the property made me feel relaxed. I was there to talk with Andrea Delong-Amaya.
Andrea Delong-Amaya: And I’m the director of horticulture here at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower center.
Cecilia: Andrea’s love of the natural world started early.
Andrea: My dad used to take me camping, and we’d go canoeing. And I remember he had a field guide for wildflower, and we walked around our neighborhood and just identified stuff. You know, but I was interested in astronomy…birds…and just anything natural. And then that just kind of evolved into, hey, I have to make a living…what can I do?
She got a job at a plant nursery, which eventually led her to her current profession. The Wildflower Center is a public Botanical Garden, where visitors learn about the beauty and usefulness of Texas native plants.
Andrea: And so, anything that occurs within the state boundaries, we would consider part of our collection. So, other things we would consider a weed. So, we try to get the non-native things out. But the focus is to highlight the beauty of our Texas native plants and how they’re important with the greater ecology. Obviously people are very aware of pollinators—the issue of pollination. So that’s a symbiotic thing that’s going on between the plants and the animals that are pollinating them.
Cecilia: As we learned earlier in the podcast, the native plant/native pollinator equation is critical to our survival. Yet as the human population continues to expand, we appropriate nearby unspoiled natural areas for our needs. When that happens, native plants, pollinators and other wildlife get pushed farther out. But we can make it up to them… with a wildscape.
Andrea: So, very simply, wildscaping is planting plants and creating a landscape that is conducive to attracting different kinds of wildlife. And, depending on what you plant and how you plant them and whatever hardscape and other elements that you need to include, will help attract those particular kinds of animals. And, I tell you, it’s better than watching TV. I have a pond, a small pond right outside my kitchen window. And you know, I’ll sit and have dinner, and I might have four or five different species of birds come up and take a bath, or take a drink. And then the squirrels hop up. It’s always interesting.
Cecilia: Native plants provide important ecosystem services for local wildlife, including our beloved pollinators. Our native plants filter storm water and rainwater in the natural world and they can provide similar services in urban and suburban settings… by reducing our landscape needs for things like water, pesticides and fertilizers.
Planting a bunch of different native plant species will attract a diverse assortment of critters. You know, even if you live in the heart of the city, and your “back forty” is forty square feet of balcony, a wildscape is not beyond your reach… or the reach of the wildlife you want to attract.
Andrea: You’re probably not going to get raccoons up on a balcony. Maybe you would. I don’t know. But you could attract birds and insects that fly. A lot of times those flowers, those plants that attract those kinds of animals, can be very showy and might be things that you’d want on your balcony anyway. So you could have a Texas lantana, or a mistflower, or a Turk’s cap and have hummingbirds and butterflies coming in to your balcony. That’s pretty fun.
Even one pot that contains a flowering native plant will attract wildlife. The Wildflower Center has a robust database…where you can find the perfect plants for your location and needs. Find a link at underthetexassky.org.
We also have links to a Texas bumblebee identification guides, as well as links to citizen science projects where you can help native pollinators. Find them at underthetexassky.org.
And now it’s time for our Shout out to the Wild segment, where you share your thoughts about what you love about the great Texas outdoors.
Malinda Wilson: Hello. This is Malinda Wilson, and I live in Tarpley, Texas. I really love the Texas wildflowers. Particular the drive on Highway 16, from Fredericksburg to San Saba in the springtime. That is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Wildflowers on the left and the right as far as you can see. Every color under the rainbow. Fantastic!
Cecilia: Find out how you can give a shout out to the wild like Malinda Wilson. Just visit underthetexassky.org and click on the “Get Involved” link.
Earlier in the podcast I told you a riddle, but didn’t give the answer. Here it is again: If you have beauty in your eye, what are you holding in your hand? Know it? If you have beauty in your eye, what are you holding in your hand? The answer: you are holding a bee. Why? Because beauty is in the eye of the bee holder.
And so we come to the end of another podcast…and not a moment too soon. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife, and is available for streaming or download at UndertheTexasSky.org and other places where podcasts hang out.
We record the podcast in Austin, Texas at The Block House…and Joel Block does our sound design.
I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti—and I do everything else—including reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.