Longer, warmer days are here, and with them we acknowledge a key player in the wonderful seed to flower transformations happening all around us – our friends and allies: the pollinators.
These creatures, which include beetles, butterflies, moths, bees, and bats, are responsible for the transfer of pollen from the male sex organ of the flower (anther) to its female counterpart (stigma). This well manipulated strategy ensures the birth of a seed in the plants ovule and the continuance of certain species. Pollen can also be moved by wind, water, or a gardener’s helping hand. Wind pollinated plants tend to produce a large abundance of lightly weighted pollen. At Herb Pharm’s “pharm” our Corn, Sweet Annie, Wormwood, and Stinging Nettle are wind-pollinated herbs. My nose always knows, along with itchy eyes, where to find these plants. However, insects pollinate the majority of medicinal herbs, including many of our farm’s crops.
From observation at the farm, bees seem to be our most prolific and efficient pollinators. Worker bees voraciously consume nectar and pollen in the early summer from our Motherwort and Mullein patches. They move happily towards July through the Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Calendula and Echinacea purpurea. Worker bees, which are female, will forage nectar to bring back to the hive. Female nurse bees will feed nectar, honey and pollen to the queen’s young brood. There is only one queen per colony, but worker bees can choose to feed the young larva “royal jelly” to create a new queen. New queens are typically raised in the spring, when it becomes a colony’s natural instinct to swarm. A swarm is how honeybees advance their population, when approximately half the hive’s workers leave the colony with a new queen. You may have seen a swarm of honeybees land on a tree, under house eaves, or in chimneys and walls during this time.
The farm crew rarely encounters a male honeybee, called a drone, in our crop fields. They do not forage pollen or nectar from our plants. They fly to the “drone congregating area” and hang out all day with other male bees waiting for the queen bee to pass by. Their main role is to mate with the queen. However, the free meals and ride is over in the fall. The female workers will drag drones to the hive entrance and close the door. Drones serve no purpose to the winter hive, and they will not survive on their own.
One type of male bee we do encounter on the farm is the male bumblebee. Once a male bumblebee leaves the nest hive, he will not return to it. Instead, they sleep inside the flowers at night for warmth and slowly emerge, while drinking nectar as the sun warms them up. We observe bumblebees drifting amongst our Wood Betony, Bugleweed and Hyssop flowers.
Butterflies are also an important pollinator for many of our farm’s herbs. It’s hard to miss the giant swallowtail butterfly feeding on Goldenrod, Echinacea, and Pleurisy flowers. The smaller skipper butterflies are always attracted to our Yarrow beds. Beetles are some of the most primitive forms of pollinators on the farm. Finally, hoverflies enjoy feeding and sleeping in our Calendula flowers, and typically get trapped in our hands during the harvest. However, they are all buzz and no bite! Their bee-like appearance is to frighten predators, but these flies do not have the capability to sting.
Overall, these remarkable beings gather nourishment from the flower’s pollen and nectar to strengthen their own health, disease resistance, reproductive capabilities and individual societies. As we work alongside these creatures, our human-insect mission melds into a common goal of gathering and living well. A lively hum of chatter can be heard between the student farm crew and the bees in these flowery fields. And as the summer crops and crew begin to fade away, everybody will benefit from the transformation of flower into seed, perpetuating an ensured co-existence between plants, pollinators and people.
Listen to Herb Pharm Farm Manager Matt Dybala as he discusses the importance of bees on our 85-acre organic farm in southern Oregon.
Originally Published in June 2011