Taking Action to Preserve Native Pollinators
Bees, beetles, flies, birds, wasps, butterflies, moths, bats, and other animals are the key actors in supplying food and providing ecosystem services. Without healthy pollinator populations, our efforts to feed humanity and restore natural landscape function will fail. Our increasing adoption of large scale farming techniques has led to the rapid decline of native pollinators and have put overwhelming pressure on the European honey bee, nearly to their breaking point. This post provides a brief overview of the history of pollinators in the U.S. and the simple steps that anyone can take to help protect our food supply and help improve our natural world.
Pollination is the act of picking up a pollen grain from one flower and depositing it on another. Primitive plants such as mosses, ferns, and grasses use gravity and/or wind to accomplish their reproductive task. Most flowering species, however, require an animal to move its pollen around. If pollinators were to disappear completely, we would lose all tomato, cherry, soybean, almond, aster, oak, rose, apple, maple, carrot, and just about everything else that produces a flower. We’d still have corn, rice, wheat, little bluestem, and the oddball shrub (e.g., fringe tree) that are wind-pollinated, plus cattails and fiddleheads, but life as we know it would end abruptly. In fact, our whole way of life is dependent upon pollinators, especially a single species; the European honey bee.
Indigenous people around the world, outside of Europe, didn’t have the European honey bee but instead enjoyed the services of their local, native pollinators as they had for generations. North American settlers relied on native pollinators, too, to feed their families and communities. But as farms grew, this started to change, to deleterious effects for everyone.
In the early New World agrarian economy, small hold farming was fairly harmless to the environment outside of poor soil conservation practices. Hedgerows were created and many wetland areas, streams, weedy margins, and some woodlots were left intact, which in turn supported, albeit unintentionally, a diverse set of pollinators to service the diverse set of crops that these early farmers grew. Farmers had cherry and apple trees, their summer vegetables, and fall crops that all worked in tandem with the various local native pollinator species that continued their existence on the margins. In fact, it is easily argued that these early farmers might have actually increased the number of native pollinators, at least those useful to the farmer, by clearing forests and creating thousands of miles of new edge habitat and thousands of acres of new meadow habitat.
This all started to change post World War II with the mass abandonment of the family farm, the creation of suburbs, and the invention of mass-producing, mono-culture farms. Large thousand-acre farms emerged that eliminated the same natural features that were supporting thriving native pollinator populations. Single-species crops devastated local pollinators that feed only for short periods of the season (e.g., mason bees feed only in April and May, which is out of synch with tomato blooms in August). Experiencing falling yields, farmers turned to importing temporary hives of European honey bees to provide pollination services. The loss of native pollinator habitat also led to the loss of the ‘good bugs’ that kept pests under control, which quickly led to the development of a dizzying array of insecticides that effectively ended the role of the native pollinator on farms and brought many to the brink of extinction. All of this was fine, however, because the European honey bee was picking up the load, almost everywhere and for every crop.
The almond crop in the U.S. is centered in one valley in California and covers over 600,000 acres. As almost no native pollinator habitat exists in those orchards, the European honey bee is the only remaining option. This single crop requires about 1.5 million honey bee hives for sufficient pollination; the U.S. has a stock of only about 2.0 million hives! European honey bee hives are trucked in from all over the U.S. and flown in from Europe, Australia, and Japan just to pollinate this one crop. All of that trans-continental and international travel and intensive insect activity greatly accelerated the spreading of disease and parasites putting the European honey bee under tremendous and unprecedented pressure. The introduction of newer and more effective pesticides adds to their challenges.
So where are we today? Native plant habitat is at an all-time low, native pollinators and ‘good bug’ populations provide negligible services, our sole pollinator workhorse populations are collapsing, and the number of people that require food is ever-increasing. How are we responding? Enclosed greenhouses, genetically-modified plants, and ever-more-powerful herbicides and insecticides. Where will this lead us? It’s anyone’s guess.
More importantly, what can our society do? The USDA and NRCS are supporting research into how best farmers can change their practices and introduce native pollinator habitat while protecting or even expanding yields and reducing costs; this should be supported. Universities are discovering high-performing strains of native pollinators and learning how to raise them on an industrial scale to release into a crop at just the right time. NGOs are educating corporations on how they can help support local farmers and how to restore native plant habitats that support native pollinators, and ‘good bugs’ too. These are all good, albeit nascent, attempts at remediating our situation, yet this solution set remains incomplete without the public’s help.
Individual citizens can and should play an immensely important role in two ways:
1) Learn more and make more informed buying decisions, and
2) Convert under-used land assets into productive native plant communities that support native pollinator and ‘good bug’ populations.
Discussing the incomprehensibly massive economic and environmental waste associated with our current landscaping ethos is beyond the scope of this article but it is suffice to say that our misplaced love affair with the lawn, non-native plants, and biologically inactive plants is a problem easily ten times larger than that caused by modern agriculture. Did you know that the lawn, just the lawn in the U.S., consumes more than five times the herbicide and pesticide than that which all farms in the U.S. apply to crops? Yes, the individual citizen’s behavior at home contributes greatly to our pending ecological collapse.
Good solutions abound through local extension offices, Environmental Action Committees (EACs), and local non-profits. The core of the solution is rooted, quite literally, in converting sections of parks, yards, campuses, and other under-utilized spaces into native plant communities that are large enough and of the right species and genetics to support vibrant local populations of native pollinators. Supporting local pollinator populations is critical for maintaining good genetic diversity and on maintaining populations of minor pollinator species whose critical roles are still being discovered.
Native pollinators tend to live locally yet disperse widely under the right conditions. Their emergence is intricately timed with the flowers upon which they depend to create the next generation of pollinators. Using local genotype native plants is, therefore, an integral part of supporting local populations of native pollinators and is a practice that should be supported if not legislated.
So open up a Google search page and type ‘local ecotype native plant’ or ‘native landscape design’ or anything similar that introduces you to firms that specialize in creating ecologically active landscapes on a scale that you can afford. You’ll be playing your part to preserve a healthy future for everyone.