How to Create a Plant Pollinator Habitat in the Era of Climate Uncertainty

There is growing evidence that many pollinators and plants are being triggered into earlier but not necessarily synchronous activity by the same temperature shifts associated with global warming. Find out what strategies you can implement in your own garden, orchard, or farm to enhance your plant pollinator habitat.

| October 2014

With climatic uncertainty now “the new normal,” many farmers, gardeners, and orchardists in North America are desperately seeking ways to adapt how they grow food in the face of climate change. In his book Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land (Chelsea Green, 2013), author Gary Paul Nabhan, draws from the knowledge of traditional farmers and offers readers time-tried strategies on how to implement desert-adapted practices on their own land. In the following excerpt, learn the importance of plant pollinators and how to keep them in pace and in place with arid-adapted crops.

Buy this book from Chelsea Green Publishing: Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.

Getting in Sync with Plants and Plant Pollinators

What would you do if you showed up for a date, but after a few hours of waiting, you realized that your partner had arrived several hours earlier and then left? Well, that’s one of the potential scenarios for how climate uncertainty is likely to affect crop plant–pollinator interactions in the near future, if it has not already begun. The polite term for this temporal mismatch is asynchrony, but the colloquial expression is getting stood up!

There is growing evidence that many pollinators and plants are being triggered into earlier but not necessarily synchronous activity by the same temperature shifts associated with global warming. However, each partner may be responding differently to these shifts in space and in time, so much so that they are increasingly vulnerable to “ecological mismatches.” Even if plants and pollinators do respond to the same temperature cue, the strength of the response might differ. Certain plant pollinators and their host plants may have successfully interacted with one another for centuries, but now each of their phenologies or seasonal activities has begun to shift at rates somewhat independent of their partner’s. From a data bank of 1,420 kinds of pollinators that are known to visit some 429 kinds of plants, it has been predicted that climate-driven changes in flowering times will reduce floral resources for at least 17 percent and perhaps as many as half of all pollinators, resulting in diminished nutritional diversity within their diets.

While it has already been amply demonstrated that a few pollinators such as bumble bees are getting out of step with certain wildflowers, there is less consensus on whether the flowering of many crop plants has become increasingly asynchronous with their primary plant pollinators.

Nevertheless, it is worrisome that wildflowers such as glacier lilies are now flowering two to three weeks earlier than they did a couple of decades ago, for this may foreshadow what might soon happen to at least some food crops. At certain sites in the Rockies, bumble bees are waking up and emerging from mountain meadows later than they are needed to perform the bulk of pollination required by glacier lilies. Across the continent in Maryland, nectar flows from the flowers of trees are beginning a month earlier than they did in the past, as a result of warmer winter temperatures. At my own office on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, hibiscus flowers are, on average, opening up and flowing with nectar a month earlier than when the first desert ecologists recorded their flowering in the early 1900s. But averages don’t tell the entire story; compared with the May 23 flowering at the onset of data taking by my predecessors around 1906, hibiscus flowers are sometimes opening up 70 days earlier than they did a century ago, perhaps due to the urban heat island effect exacerbating the influences of global warming.

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