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: www.eol.org)

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: www.eol.org)

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.

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The Real Dirt on the Hudson Valley Seed Library

Last month on Ken Druse Real Dirt podcast, Druse talked to Ken Greene, the founder of  Hudson Valley Seed Library. Greene came up with the idea for a seed library while working as a public librarian. The concept: people check out seeds from the library, they plant those seeds in their gardens, they save some of the seeds from the plants they’ve grown, and then they return the saved seeds to the library, at which point the seeds are available for someone else to check out and do the same. Greene started his seed library at the public library where he worked. He soon discovered the great need for educating the public about seed saving, and so he quit his day job and founded his own seed company. Along with carrying on Greene’s original vision of a seed library, Hudson Valley Seed Library is a producer and distributor of seeds, as well as a great resource for information concerning seed saving and other farm and garden related topics (just check out their blog to see proof of this).

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Castor Bean Seeds (Ricinus communis)

When Greene first started his seed library, there were very few others. But the idea is catching on. Perhaps you have one in your region. My local seed library is called Common Wealth Seed Library. And speaking of local, in the interview with Druse, Greene talks about local seed growers. They used to be common, but many were bought up by larger companies. However, they are making a comeback. My local seed grower is called Earthly Delights Farm. Local seed growers are worth supporting because the seeds they offer have been produced in that particular region. Ideally, they are varieties that have been trialed against similar varieties and selected for their superiority. This means that the selected varieties are likely to do well in that region.

Expect more posts about seeds, seed saving, and seed banking in the future. In the meantime, share your thoughts about anything seed-wise in the comment section below. 

Book Review: Seedswap

Seedswap: The Gardener’s Guide to Saving and Swapping Seeds by Josie Jeffery

Continuing debate and concern over genetically modified crops has resulted in increased interest in heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties. The communities and groups that have emerged from this movement are both the impetus and the target for Josie Jeffrey’s recent book, Seedswap.

Seed swaps are nothing new, of course. Humans have likely gathered in some form or another to exchange seeds since the invention of agriculture, but recent interest in saving, sharing, and trading seeds parallels the GMO debate and the rise of urban agriculture. In that regard, Jeffrey’s book is a timely resource for anyone interested in joining the seed banking, seed swapping, and seed activism movements.

While much of this book is devoted to explaining the how-to’s of seed saving (including specific information on how to grow and save seed from 49 vegetable, herb, and flower varieties), the content that really sets it apart from other seed saving guides is, unsurprisingly, the focus on seed banking and seed swapping. Jeffrey provides a brief history of seed banks, the reasons behind them, descriptions of some of the more prominent ones, and some tips for starting a seed library. For seed swap novices, Jeffrey’s advice concerning where to find them and what to expect when attending them, as well as tips and etiquette to keep in mind are incredibly useful. After spending a few moments with Seedswap, every gardener should find themselves inspired and motivated to start saving and sharing seeds.

Jeffrey’s book is beautifully designed and well put together. Apart from the fact that it jumps around a bit and could stand to be better organized, it’s a nice little reference for anyone involved or looking to be involved in the world of seeds.

seed swap book

‘Tis the season for seed swaps. Find fellow gardeners to swap seeds with here.

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