We have a problem with pollinator insects. By “we” I mean my family as well as the world in general. I’ve been a bit smug on the issue for the last few years. I don’t use pesticides. I plant a wide variety of flowers and vegetables, and we have lots of natives including annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and vines. There are untilled areas for ground-nesting bees, plenty of dead wood for the types that live in small holes and lots of water sources. I’ve never felt the need to keep bee hives as we’ve always had so many wild colonies. This year, I have been taken aback at how low our insect populations are. Well, except for mosquitoes and ants – I’m not sure anything can really make a dent in their populations.
The first clue was that despite plenty of blossoms – all the usual annual/perennial flowers in the garden and flowers on the vegetable plants – I was seeing very few bees. Most years, a squash plant would have two or three honey bees on every flower as well as a few mason or leaf cutter bees and the odd bumblebee. This year I might see one honey bee per plant and none of the others. I have not seen a single Monarch butterfly and we have fewer swallowtails, buckeyes and fritillaries. Next was a drop in the numbers of summer squash fruits. Not only were they fewer in number than usual, but they were smaller and in some cases not completely filled out – a sign of inadequate pollination. Yet we had lots of honey bees in the pennyroyal patches down in the pastures. Same thing with cucumbers. No problems with tomatoes, peppers and beans, but none of them depend on insects for pollination.
So, I resorted to hand pollination for the cucurbits. It’s an easy process. Take a clean Q-tip or fine bristled paintbrush with a pointed tip, poke it into a male flower, twist it around and then poke it into a female flower. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Since I’m not saving seeds, I didn’t worry about varieties. While hand pollination has probably solved the cucurbit problem, it’s very worrisome. Fruit trees are dependent on pollinator insects. Hand pollinating a fruit tree is a very different prospect. This year we had good crops of apples and pears, so there must have been insect pollinators around in the early spring. Friends about 15 miles away report the same problem with low numbers of pollinators. Have any of you readers noticed similar drops in pollinator insects?