How to Protect Pollinators and Cope with Pollen Season

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As spring spreads across North America, trees, shrubs and flowers release pollen. This fine, powdery substance is produced by the male structures of cone and flowering plants. When transported to the female structures of plants by wind, water, or pollinators, fertilization occurs.

When pollen travels, it also triggers allergies in some 25 million Americans. Exposure to pollen can cause sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, runny nose, and postnasal drip — unwelcome signs of spring for sufferers. This roundup of Conversation articles describes recent findings on pollinator protection and pollen season management.

Hi pollinators, over here

Since pollen grains carry cells that fertilize plants, it is essential that they get where they need to go. Often wind or gravity is enough, but for many plants a pollinator must carry the pollen grains. Some plants offer edible nectar or pollen to attract insects, bats or other animals, which carry pollen from plant to plant as they forage. Many flowers also attract pollinators with their scent.

“Similar to the scents on a department store counter, flower scents are made up of lots of chemicals that easily evaporate and float through the air,” writes Mississippi State Horticulturist Richard L. Harkess. University. “To differentiate themselves from other flowers, the flowers of each species give off a unique scent to attract specific pollinators. …Once pollinated, the flower ceases to produce floral fragrance and nectar and redirects its energy to the fertilized embryo which will become the seed.

With a little human help, this butterfly is back – at least this year

Many insect species have declined in recent years. Honeybees and other bee species, which pollinate many important crops, are a major focus.

In a 2021 study, University of Florida agricultural extension specialist Hamutahl Cohen found that when bees visited fields where sunflowers, grown as crops, bloomed over many acres, they picked up pests at a high pace. In contrast, bees that foraged in hedgerows around crop fields and could choose from a variety of flower types for food spread farther and had lower infection rates.

“The more bees in the sunflower fields, the more pests,” Cohen said. “Sunflower flowers herded bees, which amplified the risk of disease.”

“In the presence of many flower types,” however, “bees disperse and spread through resources, reducing the likelihood of each bee encountering an infected individual,” he said.

New survey offers ray of hope for declining native bee populations

Warmer temperatures, more pollen

As climate change increases average temperatures in the United States, growing seasons are starting earlier and ending later in the year. This is bad news for allergy sufferers.

“The higher temperature will extend the growing season, giving plants more time to emit pollen and reproduce,” write University of Michigan atmospheric scientists Yingxiao Zhang and Allison L. Steiner. And by increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, climate change will allow plants to grow larger and generate more pollen.

“Southeastern regions, including Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, can expect large increases in grass and weed pollen in the future,” Zhang and Steiner report. “The Pacific Northwest will likely experience peak pollen season a month earlier due to the early alder pollen season.”

Climate change is further worsening the pollen season across the country

Provide better forecasts

With all that pollen, how can allergy sufferers know when the count is high? The United States has only a rudimentary network of 90 pollen-watching stations across the country, staffed by volunteers and operating only during pollen season. As a result, there often isn’t good information available when people need it.

Fiona Lo, an environmental health scientist at the University of Washington, is working with colleagues to develop a model that can predict pollen releases into the air. “Our predictions can predict specific pollen types because our model includes information about how each type of plant interacts differently with the environment,” Lo explains.

The model only predicts the levels of four common pollen types in areas where there are observation stations. Ultimately, however, Lo and his collaborators “want to provide a forecast every day during pollen season to give allergy sufferers the information they need to manage their symptoms. Allergies are often undertreated and knowledge about Self-care is limited, so a reliable, easy-to-access pollen forecast — for example, through an app on your phone — along with education on allergy management, could really help allergy sufferers.

Pollen season is also gardening season, as it is when plants bloom. West Virginia University mycologist Brian Lovett offers advice for gardeners who want to attract beneficial insects to their garden for pollination and other purposes.

Help butterflies, bees and birds with a pollinator garden in your backyard

One step is to replace the grass with native wildflowers, which will provide pollen and nectar for insects such as ants, bees and butterflies. “Just like you might have a favorite local restaurant, the insects that live around you have a strong taste for flowers native to their area,” says Lovett.

Replacing white bulbs with yellow or warm LED bulbs and providing water in dishes or other containers are also insect-friendly measures. Local university extension offices and garden stores may offer other suggestions.

“In my opinion, humans too often view themselves as separate from nature, which leads us to relegate biodiversity to designated parks,” says Lovett. “In fact, however, we are an important part of the natural world, and we need insects just as much as they need us.”

Jennifer Weeks is senior environment + energy writer for The Conversation.

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