Pollinators: What to watch for this season

PJ Liesch, Extension entomologist
Department of Entomology
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Science
Twitter: @WIBugGuy

Total Time: 5:21

0:12 Wisconsin’s pollinator situation
1:13 Threats facing bees and pollinators
2:12 What we can do to help
3:43 Tips and tricks for dealing with insects
5:09 Lead out



Adam Wigger: “Insects: What to watch for this season”. We’re talking today with PJ Liesch, Extension Entomologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension, Insect Diagnostics Lab in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger. There are huge movements, not just here but around the world to save bees and other pollinators. What’s our pollinator situation here in Wisconsin?

PJ Liesch: Yeah so our pollinator situation here in Wisconsin is very similar to other spots around the country. We know in general bees are facing some tough times. Now when folks are thinking about bees, probably the first thing that comes to mind would be honey bees or perhaps bumble bees, and those are really only two main types of bees. If you look at Wisconsin alone, we have between four and five hundred different species of bees. The vast majority of these are wild, solitary bees, meaning that they nest individually, and each female has her own nest. Some of these can be very very common in the spring. Some of our earliest spring pollinators are these wild bees. Again they are often nesting in the ground, and they are nesting in what essentially looks like an ant hill, except there would be a female bee that lives there and lays her eggs and stashes her pollen and food sources for her larvae to develop on in there. We do have an amazing diversity of bees, but again bees are facing a lot of different threats. From impacts of pesticides in some cases. Probably one of the biggest factors would be land use changes. I like to tell folks, if we could magically look at Wisconsin today and look at a satellite view if we somehow had that from two hundred years ago, we’d have a lot more green space. Today we have urbanization, we have agricultural practices with monoculture and things like that that has really fragmented the environment and simplified it so we’ve had a lot of habitat loss. Some of these bees are very specific in terms of the habitat they like, so that’s probably impacting them. And then there are some other factors as well. Diseases and parasites can also impact bees. The main point I want to make about bee decline is that its not one single cause, but many many interacting factors that individually stress bees and are causing their numbers to decline. Now what can we do to help them out? There are some very simple things that we can do in our backyard. Perhaps the simplest would be to simply put in more flowering plants. We know that bees like to go to flower, and if you put out a diversity of flowers, you will get a diversity of bees and other pollinators showing up. Some bees are picky eaters, so to speak. They may go to specific types of plants, so if you have a broad diversity of plants in your yard, that can help them out. I also like to encourage folks to go with native plants if possible, because our native bees are more adapted to our native plants. There are cases where if you go to the hardware store or the garden center, there are very flashy flowers that have been bred specifically to be colorful and catchy to the human eye, but in some cases, those flowers may have very little pollen or nectar. So we think we’re doing bees a favor, putting out flowers, but if those flowers are not a good source of food for them, we might not be helping them that much. Putting out lots of different types of flowers in your yard can be very helpful, and also reducing or eliminating pesticide use in our yards can be helpful as well. That would be reducing insecticide use. But also, if you think about it, a lot of folks have their yards treated for dandelions, and to us a dandelion may be a weed, but to a bee or pollinator, that dandelion could be breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So in some cases, folks are making the decision simply to tolerate weeds in their yards, and that may be helping out bees and other pollinators as well. 

Adam Wigger: To kind of wrap up, do you have any last general tips and tricks to dealing with insects, helping with insects, the friendly ones at least, this season?

PJ Liesch: Yeah so some general tips and tricks, I just mentioned with the pollinators – putting out some habitat for the insects is very helpful. For bees and other pollinators, that may be putting out flowers. We have lots of insects, though, that might not necessarily go to flowers, but they’re going to plants in one way or another, so having a diversity of plants in general can help out. And just keeping some general good insect habitat. There’s lots of insects that live inside rotting logs and amongst leaf litter and things like that, and if you go and clear that all out of your yard, you’re eliminating some potential insect habitats. If you hop online, there are a lot of good resources you can find about increasing insect habitat in your yard. Some other things you could consider when it comes to lighting at night. We know a lot of insects are attracted to light, well there are some rumblings in the scientific community that light pollution might be having an impact on some of these insects. Can you perhaps consider leaving off some of the outdoor lights or leaving them off entirely? That may, to a certain extent, help out insects as well. We know some insects like fireflies rely on visual clues at night and if they’re getting distracted by lights that’s not going to be helping them out. Those are some simple things that we can do in our backyard to help out the insects that live with us.

Adam Wigger: Thank you, PJ! We’ve been visiting today with PJ Liesch, Extension Entomologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension, Insect Diagnostics Lab in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger.

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