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Identifying and Promoting Pollinator-Rewarding Herbaceous Perennial Plant Species

Evaluation of over eighty pollinator-rewarding flowering perennial plants

Following severe outbreaks of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honey bee hives, attention has turned to the health of domesticated and wild bee species.  If CCD continues to decimate honey bee populations, Pennsylvania farmers will have to depend increasingly on native pollinators.  Bees pollinate nearly all fruit crops, including apples, pears, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and melons.  The loss of pollinator populations would have a devastating effect on Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry.

To help supplement the dietary needs of these valuable native pollinators, growers are encouraged to plant flowering perennial plant species on or near their crops.  Despite their economic and environmental importance, however, little information is known about the attractiveness of these plants and their interactions with pollinator species. 

Through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Penn State Extension pollinator experts and Master Gardeners collaborated to assess over eighty pollinator-rewarding flowering perennial plants.  By monitoring individual flower visits and net collecting bees for species identification, we are beginning to understand the complex associations between pollinator species and their preferred hosts.  Ultimately, this information will allow us to help growers with recommendations for native flowering plant seed mixes that will help sustain native populations beyond the blooming period of their crops.  In addition, several brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) wasp and fly predators or parasitoids were attracted to and preferred certain native plants, specifically clustered mountain mint, boneset, and thoroughwort.  By planting these species around vegetable, fruit, or row crops, growers may potentially gain some control of BMSB by native biological control agents.

Homeowners also show increasing interest in the benefits of using native plants over exotics.  By evaluating various plant characteristics (establishment and spread, weed suppression, maintenance requirements, bloom abundance, and aesthetic appeal), Penn State Master Gardeners are helping to promote beneficial native perennials to landscapers, nursery operators, and homeowners.

About the Researcher:

In her graduate studies at Penn State, Katie Ellis researched the behavior and dispersal patterns of the European corn borer, a major pest of corn.  After graduating in 2009 with a Ph.D. in entomology, she worked for Penn State Extension in Adams County as the Ag Innovations for Specialty Crops Educator.  In 2012, she joined Dr. David Biddinger’s lab at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center to assess the health and impact of native pollinator populations in Pennsylvania.

Contact Information:
Email:  kate.a.ellis@gmail.com