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How Birds and Other Flying Creatures Can Benefit a Garden
Seeds are planted, watered, washed by sunlight, charged with electrons during thunder and storms, and nurtured to maturity. We as humans are absolutely dependent on this process. But so do pollinators. These valuable players in this ecological balance are active in our gardens 24/7.
Birds, bees, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, ants and yes, even lowly flies have important beneficial duties in the garden. Flowers, fruits and vegetables have adopted elegant systems for attracting carriers and attaching and distributing their pollen for optimal species survival.
For a bird, insect or bat, your garden is a metropolis filled with neon signs and billboards advertising its wares. Neon signs and billboards are flower petals. They attract attention with color, including ultraviolet markers, smell, shape and size. The ultimate reward for the carrier is the sweet and nutritious nectar of the flower. The base of the sign is the flower stem, which is designed to hold the flower high enough to be easily seen. This ensures that it will not be trampled by insect and animal traffic on the ground before it gets a chance to fertilize.
The bee has seen the ultraviolet sign of the nectar and makes its way to its target. The hairs on the bees’ abdomens are statically charged to help hold the pollen as it touches the anther, which is the male part of the plant that produces the fertilizing powder. Bees also have built-in ‘saddle bags’ and ‘baskets’ on their legs and body parts to carry pollen to the next flower. After the pollen is removed from the sticky stigma (the female part of the plant), it travels down the stigma tube to the ovary and ovules at the base of the flower. There, each ovum becomes a new fertilized flower seed. And that is the greatest reward for a flower!
Evolution has further modified plants to provide the correct size nectar tube to accommodate the correct size creature’s tongue. For example, moths hover to feed, so they need a flat flower with a deep tube that matches the length of the moth’s tongue. The flower will be white or very bright so that it can be seen in the moonlight, and it will be very fragrant so that it can be found in the dark of night.
Bats also work the night shift. Those flowers that open after sunset and are extremely fragrant, large, showy and white with larger pollen grains will attract the attention of our echolocators. They have bristles on their tongues to which some pollen sticks as they absorb the nectar. It is then transferred from the bat’s head, legs and tongue to the next flower. Larger, sturdier flowers will accommodate the bat’s head without damage. In addition, bats can eat thousands of harmful insects every night. I would hate to think where we would be without their vigilance!
Bees are especially attracted to yellow and blue colors, as well as plants with a sweet smell. The flower tubes of these plants are just the right size for the bee’s tongue to reach. Interestingly, the snapdragon can only be ‘unlocked’ by a bee of the right size and weight to ‘provide the right key’ to open the ‘magic door’ to the ‘treasure room’.
In contrast, butterflies do not have a good sense of smell, but they can see the color red. Did you know that they ‘taste’ with their feet? They have very sensitive receptors that tell them if they are on the right plant rich in nectar or on the edge of a tasty puddle of mud full of minerals and moisture necessary for their survival. The flowers, which produce clusters of smaller flowers, make good ground for butterflies to land on so they can sip safely.
Those plants that store pollen inside the anther rather than on top, such as tomato, need to be shaken to ensure that the pollen is released through the anther pores. Bumblebees provide this service. They land on a flower and then vibrate their wings, and voila!
Beetles are another flying creature that can benefit the garden. They like spicy or fruity scents of large greenish or off-white flowers. Since beetles are quite efficient pollinators, these flowers have evolved armor to protect the delicate ovules from damage while the beetles perform their task as pollinators.
Hummingbirds have a keen sense of smell and are attracted to the red, orange and pink tubular flowers in your garden. I’m sure you’ve seen a hummer sipping nectar from a hanging fuschia or potted petunia. They require flower petals that are curved from their wings that beat rapidly as they feed. The pollen is transferred to their chest, beak and head.
Songbirds do not have a strong sense of smell, so they look for brightly colored flowers such as red, orange, pink, yellow and purple. They not only spread pollen with their beaks, heads, chests and legs, but also distribute the seeds they have eaten with their droppings. A location where birds regularly congregate will yield ‘surprise’ gardens automatically planted and fertilized by our beautiful female aviators.
In addition, birds consume a large amount of insects. Pests that can damage our flowers, vegetables and fruits feed on birds as a source of nutrient-rich protein. This helps the birds grow fast and strong. Adult birds also benefit from consuming these protein snacks. Blue jays even use ants to ‘brush’ their feathers and repel other insects with the formic acid they release! Fortunately, our backyard birds shoot huge amounts of insects every day.
All this biodiversity ensures a very diverse gene pool. The larger the gene pool, the greater the chance for many different species to survive and reproduce. Resist the temptation to swat a bee or squash a ladybug. Remember, they do great things for our orchards, farms and gardens.
Without birds and other flying creatures to provide these essential benefits to our gardens, we would be overrun by harmful insects, which would then destroy our beautiful flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. Even if they had not been destroyed by insects, without the pollination process so efficiently carried out by our pollinator friends, there would be no more flowers, vegetables or fruits. Our ecological balance would be destroyed, and us with it. That’s how important these highly underestimated birds and other flying creatures are to all of us!
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