Year of Pollination: Pollinator Walk at Earthly Delights Farm

Last week I had the privilege of attending a pollinator walk with a local entomologist at Earthly Delights Farm, a small, urban farm in Boise, Idaho. The entomologist was Dr. Karen Strickler, an adjunct instructor at College of Western Idaho and the owner of Pollinator Paradise. A small group of us spent a couple of hours wandering through the farm looking for pollinators and discussing whatever pollinator or non-pollinator related topic that arose. Earthly Delights Farm, along with growing and selling produce using a subscription-based model, is a seed producing farm (and part of a larger seed growing operation called Snake River Seed Cooperative), so there were several crops flowering on the farm that would typically be removed at other farms before reaching that stage, such as lettuce and carrots. The farm also shares property with Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery, a nursery specializing in water efficient plants for the Intermountain West, which has a large demonstration area full of flowering plants. Thus, pollinators were present in abundance.

A series of isolation tents over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties.

A series of isolation tents placed over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties – an important component of seed saving.

While many groups of pollinators were discussed, including leafcutter bees, bumblebees, honeybees, sweat bees, hummingbirds, and beetles, much of our conversation and search was focused on syrphid flies. Flies are an often underappreciated and overlooked group of pollinators. While not all of the 120,000 species of flies in the world are pollinators, many of them are. The book Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society has this to say about flies: “With their reputation as generalist foragers, no nests to provision, and sometimes sparsely haired bodies, flies don’t get much credit as significant pollinators. Despite this reputation, they are often important pollinators in natural ecosystems for specific plants, and occasionally for human food plants.” They are especially important pollinators in the Arctic and in alpine regions, because unlike bees, they do not maintain nests, which means they use less energy and require less nectar, making them more fit for colder climates.

One food crop that flies are particularly efficient at pollinating is carrots. According the Xerces Society, carrot flowers are “not a favorite of managed honeybees.” Most flies do not have long tubular, sucking mouthparts, so they search for nectar in small, shallow flowers that appear in clusters, such as plants in the mint, carrot, and brassica families. Flower-visiting flies come in search of nectar and sometimes pollen for energy and reproduction. While acquiring these meals they can at times inadvertently collect pollen on their bodies and transfer it to adjacent flowers. They are generally not as efficient at moving pollen as other pollinators are, but they can get the job done.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be important pollinators, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be effective pollinators as well, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

During the pollinator walk, we were specifically observing flies in the family Syrphidae, which are commonly known as flower flies, hoverflies, or syrphid flies. Many flies in this family mimic the coloring of bees and wasps, and thus are easily confused as such. Appearing as a bee or wasp is a form of protection from predators, who typically steer clear from these insects to avoid being stung. The larvae of syrphid flies often feed on insects, a trait that can be an added benefit for farmers and gardeners, particularly when their prey includes pest insects like aphids. Other families of flies that are important pollinators include Bombyliidae (bee flies), Acroceridae (small-headed flies), Muscidae (house flies), and Tachinidae (tachinid flies).

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) - one species of hundreds in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower visiting flies (photo credit:

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) – one species of thousands in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower-visiting flies (photo credit:

Because many species of flies visit flowers and because those flies commonly mimic the appearance of bees and wasps, it can be difficult to tell these insects apart. Observing the following features will help you determine what you are looking at.

  • Wings – flies have two; bees have four (look closely though because the forewings and hindwings of bees are attached with a series of hooks called hamuli making them appear as one)
  • Hairs – flies are generally less hairy than bees
  • Eyes – the eyes of flies are usually quite large and in the front of their heads; the eyes of bees are more towards the sides of their heads
  • Antennae – flies have shorter, stubbier antennae compared to bees; the antennae of flies also have bristles at the tips
  • Bees, unlike flies, have features on their legs and abdomens designed for collecting pollen; however, some flies have mimics of these features
Bumblebee on Echinacea sp.

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea sp.

Another interesting topic that Dr. Strickler addressed was the growing popularity of insect hotels – structures big and small that are fashioned out of a variety of natural materials and intended to house a variety of insects including pollinators. There is a concern that many insect hotels, while functioning nicely as a piece of garden artwork, often offer little in the way of habitat for beneficial insects and instead house pest insects such as earwigs. Also, insect hotels that are inhabited by bees and other pollinators may actually become breeding grounds for pests and diseases that harm these insects. It is advised that these houses be cleaned or replaced regularly to avoid the build up of such issues. Learn more about the proper construction and maintenance of insect hotels in this article from Pacific Horticulture.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.


Year of Pollination: More than Honey, etc.

When I decided to spend a year writing about pollinators and pollination, I specifically wanted to focus on pollinators besides the honey bee. Honey bees already get lots of attention, and there are loads of other pollinating organisms that are equally fascinating. But that’s just the thing, honey bees are incredibly fascinating. They have a strict and complex social structure, and they make honey – two things that have led humans to develop a strong relationship with them. We have been managing honey bees and exploiting their services for thousands of years, and we have spread them across the planet, bringing them with us wherever we go. In North America, honey bees are used to pollinate a significant portion of our pollinator-dependent crops, despite the fact that they are not native to this continent. In that sense, they are just another domesticated animal, artificially selected for our benefit.

It’s common knowledge that honey bees (and pollinators in general) have been having a rough time lately. Loss of habitat, urbanization, industrial farming practices, abundant pesticide use, and a variety of pests and diseases have been making life difficult for pollinators. Generally, when the plight of pollinators comes up in the news, reference is made to honey bees (or another charismatic pollinator, the monarch butterfly). News like this encourages people to take action. On the positive side, efforts made to protect honey bees can have the side benefit of protecting native pollinators since many of their needs are the same. On the negative side, evidence suggests that honey bees can compete with native pollinators for limited resources and can pass along pests and diseases. Swords are often double-edged, and there is no silver bullet.

In a recent conversation with a budding beekeeper, I was recommended the documentary, More than Honey. I decided to watch it, write a post about it, and call that the honey bee portion of the Year of Pollination. Part way through the movie, another documentary, Vanishing of the Bees, was recommended to me, and so I decided to watch both. Below are some thoughts about each film.

more than honey movie

More than Honey

Written and directed by Swiss documentary filmmaker, Markus Imhoof, this beautifully shot, excellently narrated, meandering documentary thrusts viewers into incredibly intimate encounters with honey bees. Cameras follow bees on their flights and into their hives and get up close and personal footage of their daily lives, including mating flights, waggle dances, pupating larvae, flower pollination, and emerging queens. In some scenes, the high definition shots make already disturbing events even more disturbing, like bees dying after being exposed to chemicals and tiny varroa mites crawling around on the bodies of bees infecting them with diseases – wings wither away and bees become too weak to walk. This movie is worth watching for the impressive cinematography alone.

But bees aren’t the only actors. The human characters are almost as fun to watch. A Swiss beekeeper looks out over stunning views of the Alps where he keeps his bees. He follows a long tradition of beekeeping in his family and is very particular about maintaining a pure breed in his hives, going so far as flicking away the “wrong” bees from flowers on his property and crushing the head off of an unfaithful queen. A commercial beekeeper in the United States trucks thousands of beehives around the country, providing pollination services to a diverse group of farms – one of them being a massive almond grove in California. He has been witness to the loss of  hundreds of honey bee colonies and has had to become “comfortable with death on an epic scale” – the grueling corporate world grinds along, and there is no time for mourning losses.

Further into the documentary, a woman in Austria demonstrates how she manipulates a colony into raising not just one queen, but dozens. She has spent years breeding bees, and her queens are prized throughout the world. A man in Arizona captures and raises killer bees – hybrid bees resulting from crosses between African and European honey bees (also known as Africanized honey bees). Despite their highly aggressive nature, he prefers them because they are prolific honey producers and they remain healthy without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Probably the darkest moment in the film is watching workers in China hand pollinate trees in an orchard. Excessive pesticide use has decimated pollinator populations in some regions, leaving humans to do the pollinating and prompting the narrator to reflect on the question, “Who’s better at pollinating, man or bees? Science answers with a definite, ‘not man.'”

Also included in the film is an intriguing discussion about bees as a super-organism with a German neuroscientist who is studying bee brains. The narrator sums it up like this: “Without its colony the individual bee cannot survive. It must subordinate its personal freedom for the good of the colony… Could it be that individual bees are like the organs or cells of a body? Is the super-organism as a whole the actual animal?”


Vanishing of the Bees

Colony collapse disorder is a sometimes veiled yet important theme throughout More than Honey, and it was certainly something that drove the creation of the film. In the case of Vanishing of the Bees, colony collapse disorder is the reason for its existence. Narrated by actor, Ellen Page, and produced in part by a film production company called Hive Mentality Films, this movie came out on the heels of the news that bee colonies were disappearing in record numbers throughout the world. It tells the story of colony collapse disorder from the time that it first appeared in the news – one of the film’s main characters is the beekeeper that purportedly first brought attention to the phenomenon – and into the years that followed as scientists began exploring potential causes.

This film contains lots of important information and much of it seems credible, but it is also the type of documentary that in general makes me wary of documentaries. Its purpose goes beyond just trying to inform and entertain; it’s also trying to get you on board with its cause. I may agree with much of what is being said, but I don’t particularly like having my emotions targeted in an effort to manipulate me to believe a certain way. It’s a good idea not to let documentaries or any other type of media form your opinions for you. Consider the claims, do some of your own research and investigation, and then come to your own conclusion. That’s my advice anyway…even though you didn’t ask for it.

That being said, colony collapse disorder is a serious concern, and so I’ll end by going back to More than Honey and leave you with this quote by its narrator:

The massive death of honey bees is no mystery. What’s killing them is not pesticides, mites, antibiotics, incest, or stress, but a combination of all these factors. They are dying as a result of our civilization’s success, as a result of man, who has turned feral bees into docile, domestic animals – wolves into delicate poodles.

Year of Pollination: The Anatomy of a Bee

A greater appreciation for pollinators can be had by learning to identify them – being able to tell one from another and calling them by name. Anyone can tell a butterfly from a bee, but how about telling a sweat bee from a leafcutter bee? Or one species of sweat bee from another species of sweat bee? That takes more training. This is where knowing the parts of a bee becomes important.

I am new to learning the names of pollinators. I’ve been learning the names of plants for many years now (and I still have a long way to go), but my knowledge of insect identification is largely limited to one entomology course I took in college and the occasional reading about insects in books and magazines. So, this post is just as much for me as it is for anybody else. It also explains why it is brief and basic. It’s for beginners.

This first illustration is found in the book Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm. The book starts with brief overviews of pollination, pollinators, and pollinator conservation, but then spends nearly 200 pages profiling specific plants and describing the particular species of pollinating insects that visit them. The photos of the insects are great and should be very useful in helping to identify pollinators.

bee anatomy_pollinators of native plants book

This next illustration is from the book California Bees and Blooms by Gordon W. Frankie, et al. The title is a bit deceptive because much of what is found in this book is just as applicable to people outside of California as it is to people within. There is some discussion about plants and pollinators specific to California and the western states, but there is also a lot of great information about bees, flowers, and pollination in general, including some great advice on learning to identify bees. The book includes this basic diagram, but it also provides several other more detailed illustrations that help further describe things like mouth parts, wings, and legs.

bee anatomy_california bees and blooms book

As part of their discussion on identifying bees, the authors of California Bees and Blooms offer these encouraging and helpful words to beginners like me: “Even trained taxonomists must examine most bees under a microscope to identify them to species level, but knowing the characteristics to look for can give you a pretty good idea of the major groups and families of bees that are visiting your garden. These include size, color, and features of the head, thorax, wings, and abdomen.”

If you would like to know more about the pollinators found in your region, including their names, life history, and the plants they visit, books like the aforementioned are a good start. Also, find yourself a copy of a field guide for the insects in your area and a good hand lens. Then spend some time outside closely and quietly observing the busy lives of the tiny things around you. I plan to do more of this sort of thing, and I am excited see what I might find. Let me know what you find.

Here are a few online resources for learning more about bee anatomy and bee identification:

Other “Year of Pollination” Posts:

Exploring Pollination Biology in Southwestern China

This is the sixth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Insect Pollination and Self-Incompatibility in Edible and/or Medicinal Crops in Southwestern China, a Global Hotspot of Diversity by Zong-Xin Ren, Hong Wang, Peter Bernhardt, and De-Zhu Li

We rely on pollinators to pollinate at least 75% of our food crops, which is why any talk of pollinator decline tends to make us nervous. It is also why research involving pollinators and pollination is so important. Despite all we know, there is still so much to learn. The authors of this study, recognizing that “there are large gaps in the study of the pollination of economically important and traditionally grown species in China,” set out to help close these gaps. Their research not only has the potential to benefit agricultural communities in China, but also adds to our growing understanding of pollination biology – a science that has become increasingly important in an age of human population growth and shifting climates.

The incredibly diverse Chinese flora includes at least 31,000 plant species. Three hundred of the 1500 species of worldwide cultivated crop plants “originated and/or were domesticated and/or underwent differentiation in China.” Southwestern China has a particularly large amount of botanical diversity and is considered a biodiversity hotspot. In this study concerning agricultural pollination, researchers chose to focus on Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. They chose this region due to its high level of current and historical agriculture and because it is “one of the last refuges of the eastern Asian honeybee, Apis cerana, in China.” They narrowed their research down to 11 species that are important for their culinary and/or medicinal use, some of them having widespread use and others having more local, cultural use. Depending on the species, conclusions were drawn either from available literature, from field studies, or both.

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit:

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit:

A review of the literature revealed information about each plant’s breeding system, the pollinators involved, ethnobotanical details, and other things. No information was available on the breeding system or pollinators of Panax notoginseng, “one of the most highly valued Chinese medicinal herbs.” Five species were found to be self-compatible (Angelica sinensis, Amomum tsao-ko, Brassica napus, B. campestris, and Gastrodia elata) and four were found to be self-incompatible (Camellia oleifera, Dendrobium catenatum, Fagopyrum esculentum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis). Codonopsis subglobosa was somewhere in the middle. The authors were intrigued by the persistent self-incompatibility in these domesticated plants (some more recently domesticated than others), noting that “both traditional and modern agricultural practices in China could not always overcome ancestral self-incompatibility mechanisms.” A running theme seemed to be that, if able to produce fruit or seed when hand-pollinated or without the aid of pollinators, the plants consistently performed better when insect pollinated. One of the most interesting findings was that Gastrodia elata, Dendrobium catenatum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis “persist in cultivation only through hand-pollination.”

Camellia oleifera, tea-oil plant, is pollinated by two native solitary bee species. It is avoided by native and introduced honeybees because its nectar contains substances that are toxic to worker bees, including caffeine, raffinose, stachyose, and galactose. Fagopyrum esculentum, common buchwheat, is native to southern China and was likely first domesticated there. It is pollinated by a variety of insects; however, its main pollinator in worldwide cultivation is the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. In China, evidence suggests that when pollinated by native pollinators, buckwheat produces higher yields and larger fruits. Codonopsis subglobosa is an undomesticated but cultivated perennial vine endemic to southwestern China, the roots of which are used as a substitute for ginseng. It can self-pollinate without a vector, but cross-pollination by wasps yields more seeds. Pollination by “hunting wasps” is rare, and C. subglobosa is not the only plant in the area pollinated by them. If the “evolution of hunting wasp pollination systems has evolved repeatedly in unrelated species native to southwestern China,” this region may be a “center for the convergent evolution of hunting wasp pollination.”

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Beekeeping has been a major part of agriculture in China for centuries. However, the introduction of the European honeybee has caused a significant decline in both wild and managed populations of native honeybees, despite native honeybees being “better adapted to more diffuse nectar resources” than the introduced honeybee. The decline in keeping and managing native honeybees is complicated and involves much more than just the introduction of the European honeybee. Along with the debate about what is best for agriculture in China, is the concern about what introducing non-native pollinators could mean for native flora and fauna. The authors conclude that there is “urgent need for new pollination management policies in China.”

This article ends with suggestions about how to improve and expand pollination biology research in China in order to fill gaps in knowledge, improve agricultural production, and protect and conserve native biodiversity. China is an ideal candidate for such research for several reasons: it has areas like southwestern China that are very species rich, it has a long history of agriculture, and it has numerous unique crops that are specific to Chinese culture. China also has a large and growing population, so improvements that can lead to more sustainable agricultural production will be greatly beneficial in the long run.