Bee on purple flower
Pollinators are a key part of the worldwide food supply. © ©miroslavmisiura - stock.adobe.com

Stories in the Great Lakes

The Birds and the Bees

What's the buzz about pollinators?

Chris Helzer, dir. of science for TNC's Nebraska Chapter
Chris Helzer Director of science for TNC's Nebraska Chapter © TNC

Who can forget that awkward moment when your mom or dad sat you down to have a talk about the birds and the bees? Beyond helping anxious parents explain where babies come from, birds, bees and other pollinators play another key role in the cycle of life.

No one knows this better than Chris Helzer, TNC’s director of science for Nebraska.

“Pollinators move pollen from the male parts of flowers to female parts of flowers, thereby completing the fertilization process so fruits and seeds can be formed,” he said. “Basically, they are facilitating plant sex.”

Pollinators join many other animals that help plants with transportation needs. For example, many plants rely on animals to disperse their seeds by carrying them on their fur or in their stomachs. However, pollination is a necessary first step that comes before seed dispersal.

“Those seeds wouldn’t exist without the pollinators who facilitate fertilization,” Chris said.

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Pollinators and Biodiversity

Pollinators, which include hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and moths, along with many wasps, flies, and beetles, play an incredibly important role for both people and nature.

“Pollinators help plants create the fruits and seeds that power ecosystems,” Helzer says.

“Those fruits and seeds are critical food sources for animals, and they also allow plant species to survive and reproduce. That enables diverse plant communities, which are a key to the survival and resilience of entire ecosystems.  If plants aren’t producing seeds and replacing themselves over time, plant diversity will go down.”

For Helzer, who spends much of his time with Midwestern flora and fauna, pollinators have a special draw.

“One of the things that interests me about pollinators is the number of complex and really cool relationships that have evolved between flowering plants and their pollinators,” he says. “Flower shapes, color and other design features are sometimes extremely specialized and complicated, just so they can control the kinds of insects that have access to their pollen and nectar. 

“On their side, pollinators evolve specialized equipment, too—long or short tongues, certain body sizes or shapes to help them get into flowers or reach nectar from the outside, and so on. The biggest reason I’m interested in pollinators, though, is that they react to some of the most important attributes that make healthy ecosystems. Because of that, they are great indicators of whether or not a natural system is functioning well.”

The Plight of the Pollinator

Unfortunately, today myriad species of pollinators are facing serious threats—not just the honey bees we so often hear about in the news. While different factors contribute to population declines, the primary one we should focus on is the loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat, Helzer says.

“When pollinators can find large, connected and florally-diverse habitats and aren’t exposed to pesticides, they are better able to cope with disease and other stressors. When habitat is broken up into little pieces, pollinators have fewer resources available to them; they are found in smaller, more vulnerable populations; and they are exposed to all the risks of pesticides and other human-caused threats coming in from the edges of those habitats."

“Restoring large blocks of habitat with good plant diversity will go a long way toward fixing the big problems,” he adds.

Protecting large-scale habitats for pollinators and other species is exactly the kind of work TNC is doing across the country and the world. Learn more about the places we protect across the Midwest by checking out the map below.

Explore TNC Preserves to See Pollinators

Please note that we’re following current health and safety precautions due to COVID-19 and have temporarily closed some of our preserves. Please check individual preserve pages for up-to-date information.

Indian Boundary Prairies
At Indian Boundary Prairies, a cluster of four prairies just south of Chicago, you'll find pollinators such as Acadian hairstreak butterflies and green June beetles.
Nachusa Grasslands
Restoration efforts at Nachusa are helping remnant and restored prairie to thrive and provide habitat for wildlife, including pollinators like the rusty-patch bumblebee.
Chippewa Prairie
This mesic prairie hosts big bluestem, little bluestem, indian grass, purple coneflower, Maximillan's sunflower, and side-oats gramma - all important food sources for pollinators.
Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie
Prairie Coteau's terrain is carpeted in wildflowers during the summer, providing habitat for rare prairie-dependent insects, including 25 species of butterflies.
Grand River Fen Preserve
Native butterflies occur in very high abundance at Grand River Fen. This site has long been known by lepidopterists for its diversity of these beautiful insects.
Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve
Pollinators are in great abundance among fens in Michigan.
Edge of Appalachia Preserve
Edge of Appalachia supports a huge spectrum of plant and pollinator species—including butterfly, bee, fly, hummingbird, moth and beetle species.
Big Darby Headwaters Preserve
In 2019 more than 1800 individual pollinators and 60 species were identified at the preserve, where restored agricultural fields and wetlands provide a great diversity of plants.
Kitty Todd Preserve
More than 200 species of butterflies and native bees make their home at Kitty Todd. Expansive milkweed provides food sources for monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
Pickerel Lake Fen Preserve
Monarch and giant swallowtail butterflies, four species of bat, multiple bee species, birds, and much more can be found at this southeast Wisconsin preserve.
Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area
Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area provides habitat for 14 rare and declining grassland bird species and contains habitat for the rare regal fritillary butterfly.
Chiwaukee Prairie
Chiwaukee prairie has a rich invertebrate community including butterflies, bumblebees and often overlooked pollinators like flies and beatles.
Kankakee Sands
Take a walk on our new Milkweed and Monarch Trails to learn how TNC is creating habitat for the iconic monarch butterfly, as well as the 67 other species of butterflies found here.
Green's Bluff
In 2020, work began to convert 10 acres of newly-acquired land at Green's Bluff into pollinator habitat by planting it with native wildflowers.
Efroymson Conservation Center
The native landscaping around our Indianapolis headquarters are not only visually stunning--they also attract an abundance of pollinators!

TNC Preserves with Pollinator Abundance TNC protects habitat that is crucial for pollinators throughout the Great Lakes region. Click on a green marker to learn more about the preserve.

Urban Pollinator Habitat?

Large habitats aren’t the only ones that matter for pollinators, Helzer says.

“What you do in your own yard or local garden makes a real difference. Providing a diversity of blooming wildflowers throughout the entire season can support pollinators—even in urban areas. It doesn’t replace the need for large blocks of habitat outside of cities, but making urban areas more supportive of at least some pollinator species is really valuable."

With that in mind, maybe it’s time to have a different kind of talk about the birds and the bees with your family—and changes you can make to help plants get busy and produce the seeds and fruits all life depends on.  

Bring Your Garden to Life with Pollinators

Nothing is more delightful in the spring than a garden in bloom! Except perhaps a garden with butterflies flitting about from blossom to blossom sipping nectar as they go. Not to mention their fascinating little caterpillars, each one awaiting its turn to “Spread your wings and prepare to fly, for you have become a butterfly,” as Mariah Carey sings.

While butterflies dine, they are also pollinating the plants, helping them produce the seeds that will become the next generation.

Want to attract butterflies, bees, birds and other pollinators to your garden?  If you grow the plants they love, they will come.

We recommend plants that are native to your area because the caterpillars of some pollinators such as monarchs need to feed on specific plants like native milkweed. Native plants also require less water and do better in the soils and climate they’ve adapted to.