It is no exaggeration to say that civilization depends on pollinators. More than a third of global food production depends on animal pollinators. Birds, bees, butterflies, beetles, bats and other small mammals all help pollinate not only food crops, but also flowers and other plants of commercial and ecological value. Bees alone pollinate 90 species of commercially grown food crops. And there are tens of thousands of other species of bees that pollinate plants in the wild. But bees and other pollinators are struggling.
Pollinators at risk
Research shows that the biomass of flying insects has been reduced by 76% over the past three decades. Bee hives are plagued by Colony Collapse Disorder. This sudden and mysterious death is thought to be a symptom of larger ecological issues that affect all pollinators – pesticides, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change. Each of these factors directly harms pollinators, and the impacts are compounded by the synergy between them.
When pesticides are applied in gardens, they kill pollinators as effectively as they kill pests. It takes an acre of flowers to feed a colony of bees. There simply isn’t enough forage in many urban areas to feed all potential pollinators, especially when many green spaces are covered in pesticide residue. Climate change is disrupting the weather and temperature patterns to which pollinators are adapted. Altered seasons also disrupt the flowering times of native plants that pollinators rely on, while encouraging the growth of non-native plants that are not efficient nectar producers. This further degrades the quality of habitats, creating stress on pollinator populations. Stressed populations are more vulnerable to non-native diseases and parasites.
If you want your own honey, you may want to maintain your own hives. But to truly protect your local pollinators, you need to look beyond beekeeping. You can provide native pollinator homes with bee houses and nest boxes, and even bat houses.
If you use pesticides in your landscape, the first step is to eliminate them. We can make habitats safer for bees and other pollinator populations by avoiding pesticides in our gardens, especially neonicotinoids. Once favored as safer pesticides because they are less toxic to mammals, neonicotinoids are particularly harmful to bees. Maintaining healthy soil and diverse plantings will reduce the risk of serious pest infestations. When problems arise, try safer organic pest control solutions instead of toxic chemicals. And remember that perfection does not exist in nature – a little insect damage is natural and part of a healthy ecosystem.
Honey bees are themselves an introduced species and, although they are not invasive, they compete with local pollinators, which tend to be more specialized. Find out which pollinator species are in your area (EarthDay.org’s Citizen Science Challenge can help you track what you see) and study their needs. Plant a pollinator garden filled with native plant species that your local pollinators rely on most. Plantation diversity is essential to provide food for a variety of species, as well as to ensure forage over time. Pollinators need to eat for more than a few weeks in the spring.
Think beyond plantings in the garden to include insect watering stations and birdbaths. Although mulching is essential for plant health, leave a few patches of bare soil to allow ground-nesting bees access to native soil, and create a small brush pile to provide cover for all manner of wildlife in the garden. In the fall, let the leaves rest on the ground rather than raking them. The leaf cover provides important protection for overwintering insects. Even if you don’t spend much time in the garden yourself in winter, think of ways to welcome winter wildlife to the garden.
beyond the garden
The average foraging distance for native pollinators ranges from 50 feet to ½ mile. Extend the benefit of your actions beyond your own garden fence. Share the Pesticide Pledge and encourage others to sign it. Public policy can also help. Write to your representatives in Congress encouraging them to ask the EPA to regulate pesticides that are harmful to beneficial insects.
The connection between how much you drive and the flowers blooming in your front yard may not be immediately obvious. But your carbon footprint contributes to climate change. The consequences of climate change – such as altered weather patterns, extreme storms and wildfires that pollute the air in entire states – have direct impacts on the ability of pollinators to survive. When you take climate action, like driving less, you’re doing more than just reducing traffic congestion. You protect the pollinators that sustain civilization as we know it.