Plant Flowers Because 'Our Landscape Is Awfully Sterile For Pollinators To Survive'

Jun 25, 2020

Illinois is home to many pollinators like butterflies, bees, bats, moths, wasps and flies. Though tiny, each creature plays a critical role in the production of fruits and vegetables. As pollinators, they carry pollen from the male part of a flower (stamen) to the female part (stigma) of the same or different flower .

Doug Gucker is an educator with the University of Illinois Extension. He is on the local food systems and small farms team. He said this movement of pollen must occur for the plant to become fertilized and produce fruits, seeds and young plants.

An environment that attracts pollinators will produce more fruits and vegetables; even coffee and chocolate. Gucker is concerned that Illinois' landscape doesn't vary much beyond corn and soybeans.

"We used to have more pastures, more woodlands, more fence lines that had brambles and wildflowers. Those are gone now, for the most part," he said. "Our landscape is awfully sterile for pollinators to survive."

Gucker said to bring back pollinators, plant flowers. Here is a list of Illinois native wildflowers he recommends.

  • coneflowers
  • blue lobelia
  • New England Aster
  • native roses
  • Joe Pye weed
  • white indigo
  • lead plant
  • blazing stars
  • milkweeds
  • goldenrod

And here's a list of non-native flowers that he said will also help increase and sustain the pollinator population.

  • asters
  • bellflowers
  • hollyhocks
  • monkshood
  • snapdragons
  • sunflowers
  • foxglove
  • tomatoes
  • butterfly weed
  • larkspur
  • herbs (especially the mints)
  • bergamot or bee balm.

Credit Connie Kuntz

Gucker said you can mix them into your current flower beds or you could create a separate "pollinator friendly" habitat.

"We want to have plants flowering through the growing season," he said, "whether they are trees, shrubs or flowers."

Gucker is a beekeeper and his favorite pollinator is the honey bee, but he said the syrphid fly is "a close second." It's also called the "flower fly" or the "hoverfly." It will sometimes lick the sweat off of humans, but they do not sting and cannot bite. However, since they have yellow and brown bands on their body and they fly, many people confuse them with sweat bees and kill them even though they are beneficial to humans.

"You'll see them [syrphid flies] around flowers all summer long and they kind of hover there and they actually feed on the nectar and then move from flower to flower." 

Gucker said, "They're just everywhere and you see them everywhere, once you know what you're looking at." 

Knowing what you are looking at is part of the solution, too. Gucker said it's time to stop killing every bee, wasp or insect that resembles a bee. 

He understands that some bugs are annoying.

"If we have a mosquito on our arm or we have a biting fly, that's an entirely different situation," he said. "But when it comes to our pollinators, bees won't sting you unless they are disturbed."

When you are outside, Gucker said to watch where you are walking, even if you are on your own lawn. Bumblebees nest in the ground and people often get stung when they step on a bumblebee nest.

As for pesticides, Gucker isn't entirely against them, but advised to only use them when necessary. "They hurt our native pollinators," he said, "They put an additional burden on our environment to break these products and chemicals down." If you need to use an insecticide, Gucker advises to spray at dusk when most pollinators aren't active.

Besides planting flowers, watching where you step and avoiding pesticides, Gucker said there is another action you can take: Become a bee spotter.

A bee spotter takes pictures of bees and uploads the images to an online portal. Then a university entomologist identifies it, notes the location and enters the information into a database. This will give scientists a better understanding of the pollinator population and their specific locations. 

"It's just a simple idea," he said, "that you can go and register and then you take pictures of bees." He added, "We don't want you to disturb the bee and we don't want anyone to get stung."

Gucker said Bee Spotter is hosting the 6th annual BeeBlitz is this Saturday. It's free and open to veteran and aspiring bee spotters alike.