It’s blueberry season in New Jersey! There are plenty of delicious deep blue orbs ripening for use on cereal, in pancakes, pies, crisps, cobblers, muffins, or just for snacking. The blue color reflects the presence of anthocyanins, antioxidants with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties. Blueberries are not only tasty, but good for you.
For anyone who loves blueberries, you should know that some of our native bees are the most effective pollinators of this flavorsome fruit.
Blueberries are the fruit of deciduous shrubs that generally bloom in spring. Most commercial blueberries in this region are cultivars of native blueberry species, usually Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is a species whose fruit is commonly harvested and sold in New England. If the flowers are pollinated, the fruit ripens in mid to late summer, depending on their growing conditions.
An essential partner in the production of blueberries are the bees that are the primary pollinators for blueberry flowers. While commercial growers may use Honey Bees to pollinate their crops, there are several species of native bees that are much more efficient blueberry pollinators.
How could that be? Honey Bees pollinate flowers for a living. Many are shipped from farm to farm specifically to pollinate crops. (I think of them as the migrant workers of the insect world.) How could there be bees that are more efficient pollinators?
Flowers come in all shapes and sizes, and they store and dispense their nectar (if they produce any) and pollen in many different ways. Blueberry flowers are bell-shaped, with a narrow opening that allows access to the flowers’ nectar from the bottom of the hanging blossom.
The pollen is most efficiently dispensed from the flowers’ anthers through a process called sonication, or ‘buzz’ pollination. Buzz pollination is a process of releasing pollen by which the pollinator clings to the flower and vibrates its wing muscles without moving its wings. This sets up enough of a vibration for the anthers to discharge a dusting of pollen on the flower visitor. The wing vibration makes a buzzing sound, which gives this technique its name. (Buzz pollination is the bee equivalent of ventriloquism!.) Some of the pollen will be carried from flower to flower to enable pollination, while the rest is a pay-off for this service, and will be eaten by the bee and her larvae. Bees drink nectar, but pollen is also a very important food source for them.
Honey Bees are not capable of buzz pollination, but several families of native bees are, including bumble bees, large carpenter bees, mining (Andrenid) bees, many sweat bees, some mason (Osmia) bees and Melitta bees. Highbush and Lowbush Blueberry shrubs evolved with these bees who are native to the same region and habitats. These native bees are able to handle the flowers more quickly and dispense and carry more pollen than the Honey Bees who lack this athletic skill. Mason bees generally are very swift and efficient pollinators, able to process flowers many times more quickly than Honey Bees.
Some of the native bees who are able to buzz pollinate specialize on visiting the flowers of blueberries; they and their larvae can only digest pollen from blueberry plants. This is a great benefit to the blueberries, since these bees spend all of their foraging time visiting blueberry flowers, and there is no risk of pollen being dropped off on the wrong species. It’s a risk for the bees, however. If no blueberry flowers are available when the bees are active, the bees have no back-up plan; they could starve. On the other hand, if blueberry flowers are available, it’s like assembly line processing. The bees know how to handle the flowers very efficiently to get the nectar and pollen they need to survive.
Blueberries are not the only crop that is most efficiently pollinated through sonication. Cranberries, tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, peppers and eggplant are some of the other crops that have a higher rate of pollination when native bees with this skill are available to help pollinate their flowers.
A love of blueberries is not exclusive to people. Many other mammals and birds also enjoy the tasty fruit. Black bears are probably second to humans as consumers of blueberries, but fox, rabbits, raccoons, mice and many more eat their share, too.
Ruffed and Spruce Grouse relish the bounty blueberries provide,
as do many other birds including Bluebirds, Catbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Tufted Titmice, Veeries, Robins, and Brown Thrashers.
Butterflies and moths depend on blueberries, too, but in a completely different way. Many species use the leaves and flowers as their caterpillar food. The Natural History Museum’s Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants (HOSTS) lists 32 species that use Highbush Blueberry as caterpillar food, 42 that use Lowbush Blueberry.
Caterpillars are an important part of the diet of many birds and other animals, so feeding caterpillars means that these other species will have the food they need, too.
Blueberries are great landscape plants. Not only do they provide food for our many animal neighbors (and us, if we’re quick!), but they are beautiful throughout the seasons, with their spring flowers, summer fruit, fabulous fall color and winter architectural structure and slightly shredding bark. Why would anyone plant the non-native, invasive Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) for its brief flash of color, when they could have blueberries instead?
Highbush Blueberry is native primarily in the eastern third of the United States and Canada, but also in Washington state and British Columbia. It is common in dry to wet woods, in thickets and on stream banks. It can grow to a height of about 13 feet (4 meters). Lowbush Blueberry is native from Manitoba to Newfoundland and Labrador provinces in Canada, and south as far as Tennessee and North Carolina (except Kentucky) in the United States. It can be found in dry woods and barrens, where its partnership with mycorrhizal fungi helps it to get the nutrients it needs from the soil. It is a low growing plant, usually to a maximum height of about 2.5 feet (.75 meters).
The USDA NRCS Plant Database lists 25 species of blueberries that are native in different regions in North America. Find one that’s native where you live, and add it to your landscape to enjoy its beauty and bounty.
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