Summer is finally here in New England! Many of our flowering plants are in their full summer glory and pollinators are actively visiting the nectar-rich blooms. As always, where there are lots of insects present, birds and other predators are also there to take advantage of the abundance. A few weeks ago, pollinator activity here on our small farm was centered on Goatsbeard and Virginia Rose, but right now, it’s all about New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), a small shrub native to sandy or rocky soils of the eastern USA:
The NJ Tea blooms are abuzz with native bees of all shapes and sizes, along with predatorial soldier beetles, non-stinging parasitic wasps, hover flies, butterflies, ants, and hundreds of other tiny insects too small to see with the naked eye.
What makes New Jersey Tea flowers so popular with pollinators? Like goatsbeard, each flower plume is actually made up of dozens of tiny 5-petalled flowers, each one containing an individual serving of sweet nectar. Because racemes are so loaded with flowers, pollinators don’t have to waste much energy traveling between flowers to get their fill. Tiny pollinators with even tinier tongues can easily reach the nectar in the small, shallow flowers, and larger pollinators such as bumble bees can literally thrash their way around the flowers to gorge themselves – picking up lots of pollen at the same time.
Also, white flowers are generally visible to a wide range of insect pollinators, unlike plants with bloom colors designed to attract a certain “specialized” pollinator – for example, red flowers are generally hummingbird-pollinated because bees cannot see the color red. It’s no coincidence that many of our native woodland plants have white flowers — their contrast against their green woodland surroundings makes them highly visible to the pollinators they require in order to set seed.
This morning I sat for several minutes watching the frenzy of activity in the New Jersey Tea blooms. Insects flew around me and dove for the flowers – oblivious to my presence and fully absorbed in eating, mating and preying upon each other. Managing “native” pollinators is so much easier than managing honey bee hives, I think. You don’t need a sting-proof beekeeping suit – most pollinators won’t (or can’t) sting you unless you threaten them in some way. And you don’t need hives or equipment, just a diversity of plants and nesting habitat so that pollinators (and their natural controls) can fulfill their life cycles each year.
Sometimes it’s hard to convince a gardener that they want to encourage insects into their gardens. We’ve been conditioned to believe that most insects flying around are bad for us, but actually most insect species out there are either beneficial to us in some way (as a pollinator, predator, or both!) and don’t impact us negatively the way, say, mosquitoes or ticks do. A turning point in a habitat gardener’s evolution is understanding that if you have a diversity of insects, you will attract a diversity of insect-eaters who will help control their populations.
Check out this funnel-web grass spider lying in wait under the New Jersey Tea leaves. Its well-crafted ambush plan is about to work – the spider is about to make a grab for the small beetle flying near its web:
I was once deathly afraid of spiders. But now, even I understand — and appreciate — that spiders have their own useful role to play in natural pest control. One of the beauties of growing a habitat garden is that I don’t have to buy the predators at a store or send away for them. Just give them the habitat they need and don’t spray them, and they will come on their own….
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