Take that flower and pollinate it.
According to a United Nations-sponsored report released in February of last year, which draws on the research findings of about 3,000 scientific papers, 40 percent of all the world’s invertebrate pollinators–including bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects–are at risk of extinction.
Pollinator Week is nearly upon us! Brush up on pollinators, who they are, what they’re about and why they’re important, right here in preparation for this week-long event that begins June 19th. Find an event near you!
When we think pollinators, we think bees.
Some people duck and swat, arms flailing, braying in horror and running as fast as their legs can carry them away from these unwelcome guests buzzing among irate humans partaking in a picnic or other outdoor activity. Bees don’t have quite a lot of fans, despite the fact that they’ve contributed mightily to that very picnic they’ve invited themselves to, and furthermore, to more than 1/3 of the global food supply.
In their role as pollinators, bees are crucially important to humans and life on earth. All by simply minding their own business and carrying out their little lives, bees help support human life on earth through plant pollination. But, in spite of how important they are to us, it is we humans who are wreaking havoc on not just bees, but the entirety of the wide and varied world of pollinating insects that sustain us through the work of invertebrates including butterflies, ants, flies, beetles and moths.
But the very crops that we count on insects to pollinate are drenched in pesticides in an effort to dissuade crop pests. But this is bad news for the bees and their fellow pollinators. Neonicotioids are a relatively new class of insecticides that are commonly used in commercial crops. Afflicting the central nervous system, neonics cause paralysis and death in insects, bees among them, as we’ve seen in colony collapse episodes that reflect the precipitous decline honey bee populations have taken in recent decades.
Scientists at the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture have identified a witch’s brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives. –Published journal PLOS ONE
As a pollinating insect moves from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar, the fine hairs covering its body brush against the stamen–the male reproductive part of the flower–which dislodges pollen which sticks to the tiny hairs on the body. Moving from one to another of the same floral species, the insect–be it a butterfly or one of many species of bees–is carrying out a symbiotic relationship with that plant, one that mutually benefits both entities. As the pollen-dusted invertebrate moves on to continue to feed or collect pollen at the next flower, the pollen on the hairs of the insect brushes against the pistil–the female reproductive part of the next flower–and thus fertilizes the plant, allowing it to reproduce. But, in the new age of neonicotinoids, pollinators are literally immersing themselves in poison. Once the crops take up the applied insecticide, plant tissues become contaminated and pass on to unwitting insects that eat the pollen or nectar of the toxin-exposed plant.
Neonicotinoids can be applied in a variety of manners: pre-treated seeds are coated with the insecticide and, during mechanized planting of crops, can be released as dust into the environment, afflicting non-target species including birds and other wildlife, and contaminating ecosystems and the environment as a whole. These broad spectrum chemicals are water soluble, meaning the toxic residue can wash from the crops into puddles as well as into our river systems. Applied in spray form, drift of the airborne contaminants can cause damage even miles away from the applied crop.
While neonicotinoids do not necessarily directly kill the bees, they cause a range of sub-lethal problems, say researchers. Depending on the kind of bee, the chemical can cause bees to eat or forage less, negatively affect reproduction cycles, and disrupt flying and navigation, all of which reduce their overall fitness and place additional stress on the hive.
Along with the sub-lethal effects caused by neonicotinoids, bees are up against a host of challenges to species survival caused by detrimental impacts of climate change, loss of healthy, biodiverse habitats to human development and suppressed immune systems as a result of parasitic mites infestations.
Without pollinators, humans and our crops wouldn’t be the only ones to suffer, the environment as a whole would also be negatively impacted. In addition to the widely regarded honey bee, there are some 20,000 known species of bees, occupying every continent except Antarctica, and more than one hundred thousand species of pollinating insects in total. Every habitat that contains flowering plants requires insect pollination. Among the vast array of bee species on our planet, there are dozens of solitary bee species that have specifically evolved in unison with a single plant species in a symbiotic coexistence that mutually benefits both parties. Such highly specialized relationships could mean that if the sole pollinator of a specific flowering plant species is threatened, that plant will be put in danger of extinction as well as the variety of wildlife that rely on that plant.
“Without the pollinators, 90 percent of the plants, like trees, shrubs or any plant you can think of, would go extinct.” -Phyllis Stiles, Bee City USA
In January, with the official classification of the rusty patched bumble bee as being in danger of extinction, the first wild bee in the continental United States to be placed under federal protection. The species has seen declines from an estimated 87% of its historic range in recent years, a range made up primarily of grasslands and tallgrass prairies of the Upper Midwest and Northeast, habitats widely lost, degraded, or fragmented as a result of development. There are also several bee species in Hawaii (seven varieties of yellow-faced, or masked, bees) that the agency listed as endangered last September. By putting our pollinators under the protections of the Endangered Species Act, we’re ensuring that restrictions will be put in place against activities known to contribute to the species’ decline and efforts toward preparation of governmental recovery plan for these at-risk species will be put into effect.
Protect pollinators: Here’s what YOU can do to help bees:
Avoid pesticides: Remember, even diluted, pesticides can collect into a “witches brew” of toxins. Imagine the puddles along a neighborhood street along which every lawn is treated? Would you let your dog drink from one, who’s stopping the bees or other pollinators?
Provide nesting sites in your yard: Untilled, unmulched, partially bare ground with leaf pieces or mud for nesting materials, and make sure adequate sources of food, shelter, water are available. Plant species in your garden that are native to your area to attract native pollinators.
Advocate for bees with neighbors and local policymakers: Education and awareness can change the world!
- The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC), in partnership with the Wildlife Habitat Council and the Xerces Society, has created a list of Pollinator Friendly Practices, which consider six different areas of land use management: foraging habitat, reproduction, shelter, invasive/exotic species control, chemical use, and monitoring.
And be sure to spread the word! Share this post with friends and family and keep updated on pollinator news and press releases from various other pollinator-centric organizations.
Tags: agriculture, bumble bees, butterflies, climate change, conservation, endangered, endangered species, endangered species act, insects, invertebrates, pollination, pollinators, species, threatened