It’s a bit early still for blueberries in north Florida, but they are definitely on the horizon. We have a handful of bushes at home and the office, and I’ve noticed the white blooms are gone and berries are forming as we speak. Many of us, myself included, look forward to the late-spring harvest of blueberries, taking our children out to u-pick operations and hunting down family recipes for blueberry-filled desserts.
Often, when people think of fruit growing in the wild, their minds naturally go to tropical rainforests, with visions of bananas, mangoes, and drooping fruit-laden trees. But blueberries are a home-grown local Panhandle fruit. A walk through any self-respecting northwest Florida wooded area is bound to have blueberry bushes growing wild. Vaccinium species thrive in more acidic soil, (between 4-6 on pH scale), which we have in abundance here. In northwest Florida, we have lots of pines and oaks dropping needles and leaves, seasoning our soil to a 6 or lower on the pH scale. Central and south Florida soils are alkaline due to all of the natural limestone, so while blueberries are grown on farms down south, they’re rarer in the wild.
Blueberries are pollinated by bees of many stripes, but most people are unaware of the specialized bee that literally lives for this season. During the last few weeks, this species has been furiously pollinating blueberry bushes during its short, single-purpose lifetime.
Southeastern blueberry bees (Habropoda labriosa) are active only in mid-March to April when blueberry plants are in flower. They are smaller than bumblebees, and yellow patches on their heads can differentiate males. Blueberry pollen is heavy and sticky, so it is not blown by the wind, and the flower anatomy is such that pollen from the male anther will not just fall onto the female stigma. Blueberry bees must instead attach themselves to the flower and rapidly vibrate their flight muscles, shaking the pollen out. Moving to the next flower, the bee’s vibrations will drop pollen from the first flower onto the next one. This phenomenon is called “sonicating” or ‘buzz pollination” and is the most effective method of creating a prolific blueberry crop.
This native bee lives most of its life underground, emerging in the spring when blueberries are in bloom and living long enough to pollinate the plants. Blueberry bees do not form hives, but create solitary nests in open, sunny, high ground. Females will dig a tunnel with a brood chamber large enough for one larva, filling it with nectar and pollen. After laying an egg, the female seals the chamber and the next generation is ready. The species produces only one generation of adults per year.
By the time we are picking fresh blueberries in May and June, you probably won’t see any blueberry bees around. However, we should all consider these insects’ short-lived but vitally important role in Florida’s $70 million/year blueberry industry!
Every spring, a certain type of pollinator is busy in the yards and landscapes of our area. It may be alarming to see small piles of soil mounded up amidst carefully tended grass, but there is no need for concern. In fact, quite the opposite! The creatures making those mounds are bees, but they’re not the type that want to sting you. Instead, they’re harmless, solitary pollinators who just want a safe place to lay their eggs.
It’s easy to confuse a bee digging in the lawn or landscape for a yellowjacket and become alarmed. Yellowjackets are very different; they form hives underground consisting of hundreds or even thousands of individual hornets. Miner bees, on the other hand, each dig their own small burrow. Each miner bee is looking for the same sort of place to build a little hidey hole, so many individuals might be attracted to an area with prime real estate, so to speak. This can lead to large numbers of mounds in close proximity to one another, but again, there is no reason to be alarmed.
Each female bee will dig a vertical tunnel up to a foot and a half deep, then make side chambers lined with waterproof material. She stocks each chamber with pollen and nectar, then lays her eggs. Larvae remain in the ground until the following spring. When they emerge as adults, they start the whole process over again.
It is important to understand and protect pollinators such as the miner bee, because they all provide a valuable service to the environment. Pollinators ensure that all the plants around us can reproduce, by carrying genetic material from one flower to another. You can help these little messengers in their task by learning about their habits and making a little room for them in your landscape. When you see these small mounds of soil in your yard, don’t worry! The bees will do their job and the next rain will likely wash away the soil.
Consider attracting other pollinators as well! Plant flowers that attract native pollinators, or leave an area of your landscape “wild”. Let dead plant stalks remain over the winter as nesting sites for pollinators, or try letting a patch of native wildflowers escape mowing for some time in the spring.
For more information, there are plenty of publications out there:
The oncoming of spring is heralded by several events. Wildflowers bloom, temperature rises, and insects awaken from their wintry slumber. The latter of these is the impetus for this article. I’m sure you have heard the buzzing of the bees already, but there is more to come. Florida is host to 315 species of native bees in addition to honey bees (Apis mellifera) which are a non-native species. Native bees in Florida are separated into six families, fulfilling several niches within our landscape. This article is only focused on a few of these.
The Sweat Bees
The sweat bees fall into the family Halictidae. These vary greatly in appearance and size with the majority being very small. Often metallic black, but may also be seen in shades of green, blue, or purple they are hard to miss in your landscape. Most sweat bees are ground nesting though some can be found above. Wildflowers, stone fruits, and sunflowers are the primary nectar sources for these bees particularly in early spring.
Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are in the family Apidae. Ground dwelling, the queen overwinters in the soil emerging in early spring to feast on wildflower nectar. Often mistaken as carpenter bees (Xylocopta spp.), they are distinguishable by the hairs covering their bodies which are lacking in carpenter bees. They are one of two bee species seen carrying pollen sacks, honey bees being the other. All but one of the five species in this genera may be found in the Panhandle where they are important pollinators for many native and ornamental plants.
One of our more unique species, Mason bees of family Megachilidae live above ground lining their nests with mud. Solitary by nature, these are prominent pollinators of fruit trees and blueberries. A variety of color makes them difficult to even identify as a bee. They often come in dark blue, black, or white striped. Much like honeybees, some species of mason bees are purchased from online sources specifically for orchards.
Carpenter bees are the final subject covered here and are split into two subfamilies. Large carpenter bees (Xylocopta spp.) chew their nests into solid wood. That the wood is sometimes fence posts, water tanks or your home means that this insect may be an economic pest. These are large and as mentioned above often mistaken for bumble bees. Small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.) are differentiated mainly by size as they are much smaller than the large carpenter bee. They may be a variety of colors as well and nest by hollowing out the pith of broken or burnt plant stems. As they make their nests in already broken plant tissue, they are not considered of economic importance.
Native bees are an important part of pollination in the Florida Panhandle. It is worthwhile to get to know which species are active in your landscape. Provide habitat and nectar to them, and they will help your plant life bloom. For more information on creating habitat for native pollinators, see this Ask IFAS document, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.
Do you enjoy a tasty bowl of fruit in the morning? Or maybe a hot steaming cup of coffee? If the answer is yes, then raise (or tip) your hat to our pollinators. About 75% of food crops depend on pollination to some extent, but pollinators provide the bulk of the pollination for over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. A pollinator can be birds, bats, or even small mammals but, insects such as ants, bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies, and moths do the bulk of the pollination that affects our daily lives.
Plants normally benefits from attracting a particular type of pollinator to their flowers, ensuring transfer and hopefully resulting in reproduction. The pollinator benefits from its adaptation of a particular flower with different traits to access nectar and pollen. These floral traits include odor, color, size, flower shape, reward type, amount, nectar composition, and timing of flowering. This plant pollinator interaction is known as pollination syndrome.
Did you know –
That tubular red flowers with a lot of nectar often attract birds.
Also, foul smelling flowers attract carrion flies or beetles.
Butterflies and moths can help spread pollen; however, they don’t have any specialized structures for collecting pollen.
Beetles pollinate more than 80% of all flowers – clusters of flowers are ideal because beetles are clumsy fliers.
While bees are drawn to plants on the blue, white, purple, and yellow color spectrum. Bees possessing hairs and other specialized anatomical structures that can readily collect and transfer pollen, making them an important plant pollinator. However, the honey bee, (Apis spp.) is the world’s top pollinator and is responsible for one-third of what we eat, yet they are just a small representative of all the bee species.
Did you Know-
Everyone can contribute to pollinators by creating a home garden. Pollinators will make use of food and habitat anywhere it is found – roadsides, open fields, pastures, backyard flower gardens etc. One can be pollinator friendly by doing any of the activities below:
Plant an assortment of plants – varying in color, size and type to support a greater number and diversity of pollinators.
Plant nativeplants – as they are considered the best choice due to their abundance of nectar and pollen, among other benefits.
Use little or no pesticides – instead maintain a sustainable garden with the suitable plant species that will support natural beneficial insects—reducing the need for pest control.
Educate– others about the importance of pollinators.
Seasonal planting – Choose pollinator plants that bloom in spring, summer, and fall. Timing is crucial – plant flowers in clumps that bloom in early spring (emerging winter hibernation) and late summer (preparing for hibernation) so bees have adequate food supply.
Provide habitat or installbat boxes. Bats play a vital role in pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds.
Helpful Hint: Did you know dandelions are the first food for bees emerging in the spring. Leave them in your yard and feed the bees!
The UF/IFAS Extension Bay County Pollinator Garden is the proud recipient of a Little Free Library built, stocked, and installed by the Bay County Library Foundation. We were incredibly fortunate the foundation had the perfect box designed and painted by local artist Heather Clements just waiting for the perfect place to be installed!
You might be asking yourself, how does a Little Free Library work? It’s very simple, if you want a book you take one and if you have a book to donate you leave it in the box. Our box includes books for all ages and reading levels including children’s books in English and Spanish and of course gardening and wildlife topics. As people exchange books the titles and topics will change and evolve over time.
If you are in Panama City I hope you will take a moment to pick out a book and enjoy our demonstration gardens at 2728 E. 14th Street, Panama City and visit the virtual garden for educational information about the garden inventory.
Need an excuse to not mow your lawn this month? UF/IFAS Extension agents in the Florida Panhandle are asking residents to skip their soon-to-be-weekly outdoor chore until the calendar flips to April.
The idea for “No Mow March” is borrowed from “No Mow May,” a concept begun in the United Kingdom that has now spread to northern parts of the United States.
“Obviously, our lawns are growing way too quickly by the time May rolls around,” said Beth Bolles, UF/IFAS Escambia County horticulture agent who is leading the pilot effort this year. “Here in North Florida, March is our transition period, when grass is exiting dormancy. But it’s also when pollinators are starting to become more active, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate them and promote their health and habitat.”
Bolles is quick to point out, though, that the month is about more than just turf.
“We recognize that some communities have rules to follow regarding their lawns,” she said. “There are other things you can do to encourage pollinators to visit, whether it’s container plants or adding new shrubs or pollinator houses. We encourage everyone to find their own way to participate.”
The first step in participating is to sign the pledge at go.ufl.edu/NoMowMarch. Visitors can also use the website to find virtual or in-person events geared to the topic, learn tips for adhering to homeowners association guidelines while still promoting pollinators, and record observations to a No Mow group on iNaturalist.