Spring for Early Pollinators
By Teri Nye, Park Pride’s Visioning Coordinator and resident botanist
Signs of spring are around us! Mayapples and bloodroot are pushing up out of the soil with leaves wrapped around should there be a chill. Dogwoods are unfurling creamy white bracts and redbuds are parading fuchsia flowers on each still-bare branch. What welcome sights! Once the temperature begins to warm consistently, we’ll see more and more flowers and more and more pollinators.
One of the first pollinators to venture out in the spring is the bumblebee. Native bumblebees are colonial bees with a life cycle lasting one year. These bees demonstrate why year-round pollinator plants are essential.
In the fall, young female bumblebees—destined to become the next year’s queens— will mate and begin stocking up on nectar and pollen gathered from late-flowering asters, goldenrods, and ageratum, to last through the winter. She alone will survive the winter but must find a safe place—in the leaf litter under a shrub, in a tangle of last summer’s grass stems, or in an abandoned rodent’s hole—to go into a resting state called diapause.
In the spring, the new queen bumblebee emerges to create a new colony. Her primary goal is to rebuild strength and raise her first brood. For this, she urgently needs early-flowering plants rich in nectar and pollen. Enter redbuds, maples, hawthorns, anemone, trillium, violets, early blueberries, and vines such as native coral honeysuckle and yellow (or Carolina) jessamine.
For bees, nectar is their primary carbohydrate and pollen is an essential source of lipids and protein. Both nectar and pollen are essential foods for the workers, the queen, and the growing larvae.
The first brood of bees born will all be female. These worker bees will take over collecting pollen and nectar for the growing colony while the queen continues to lay eggs throughout the spring and summer. As the colony grows larger, the bees visit and pollinate more plants including our crops. Not until mid-summer are reproductive bumblebees born, including males and the females that will be next year’s queens.
By offering a variety of plants that flower from March until the first hard frost, pollinator gardens provide nectar and pollen for the entire lifecycle of bumblebees and other pollinators. Only when pollinators are sustained throughout their entire lifecycle can they fulfill the essential ecosystem service we rely on: crop pollination.
Keep your eyes open and post Instagram shots of the first pollinators you see this year! When you do, tag @parkpride!
Featured image: “What’s the life cycle of an insect pollinator?” This educational sign was created by the Park Visioning Team as part of the Pollinators in Parks Initiative and will appear in parks this spring.
Teri Nye is a member of Park Pride’s Visioning team, bringing international experience in the design of parks and urban greenspaces, an expertise in Georgia native plants, and over ten years of experience in community outreach and education while at Fernbank Science Center and Brenau University. She holds a master of landscape architecture degree from the University of Georgia and a bachelor of science with a concentration in botany from James Madison University.