Pollinators: Climate change has captured world attention as the most profound issue of our time. It threatens every aspect of life on Earth. We know from science that controlling our carbon footprint (emissions of carbon dioxide) can help reduce the negative impacts of change. However, changes are happening under our feet that are only partially caused by climate change. They are profound, and we need to be aware of them so we can avert disaster.
Endangered species are commonly thought of as large mammals like grey whales, or birds like spotted owls, or elephants. They are connected to primal archetypes in our minds, which help explain why they engage us emotionally. Almost every culture has some animal archetype and survival story as part of its image bank and lore.
Think of Noah’s Ark, a formative story in Genesis through which God spares Noah, his family and examples of all the world’s animals from a disastrous flood. A version of this story appears in the Quran, and can be found in Australian Aboriginal culture. Humans and animals in this narrative form a co-evolutionary bond for survival. They need each other for the future.
Pollinators are critical to our health and survival. Yet, they don’t seem to be featured in biblical stories or oral traditions and many are endangered. They are more likely found in the minds of children, and revealed in their art, for example butterflies, bees, bats and birds.
Pollination is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. Pollinators are animals, primarily insects, but sometimes birds or mammals serve to transfer the pollen. Mass fertilization is at the heart of life on Earth, a daily dance of celebration.
Pollinators fertilize plants, resulting in the formation of seeds and the fruit surrounding seeds. This is a form of plant survival. Humans and other animals rely on pollinators to produce nuts and fruits that are essential to our lives and a healthy diet.
The majority of flowering plant species found worldwide requires pollination to make seeds that will become the next generation of plants. Pollination is a two-way street: it is mutually beneficial to pollinators, providing food, carbohydrates and sugar for life, and for plants in the form of fertilization and seeds.
Pollinators For Life: Honeybees often come to mind first when we think of pollinators. They form part of the story of human reproduction, ‘the birds and the bees’. Many different animals are, however, pollinators including other insects, various bee species, butterflies, beetles, flies, birds and some bats. There are an estimated 300,000 species of flowering plants worldwide that require pollinators. Amazingly, there are at minimum 16,000 different species of bees globally.
In fact, 80-95 percent of the plant species found in natural habitats require animal pollination. Plants, in turn, are the foundation of terrestrial food chains. Plant food—foliage, fruit, nuts— are eaten by herbivores, which are further eaten by predators. Plants also provide
shelter and nesting habitat for numerous animal species. The entire ecosystem depends on healthy pollinator populations.
The majority of crops that we enjoy eating and provide most of our nutrition—fruits, nuts, vegetables—require animal pollination. Without pollinators, our diets would be a disaster, and it would be way more difficult to obtain the vitamins and minerals that we need daily to stay healthy.
What’s At Stake? Pollinators are declining globally in both abundance and diversity. Bees, in particular, are thought to be necessary for the fertilization of up to 90% of the worlds 107 most important food crops. Hive failure rates in Europe and the U.S. for instance, are up to 50%. And biomass of insect populations has dropped in parts of Europe by 75%, sounding alarm among scientists worldwide.
Estimates are that bees alone contribute over $15 billion to crop value. Without healthy communities of pollinators entire ecosystems will collapse, and agriculture producers, which depend on them for production, will be hard pressed to find alternatives.
Economists, for example, have tried to model the cost of mechanical pollinators to pollinate crops. Replacing nature, if possible, would cost 100s of billions of dollars, and throw an entire ecosystem out of whack. In short, it would be a disaster.
DESTRUCTION OF POLLINATORS:
The top three causes of pollinator destruction are:
- Destruction of habitat: Humans domesticate wild areas and eliminate native wildflowers and pollinator-friendly plants, for example thistle.
- Global warming: Global warming adds to changes of seasons—sun exposure, magnetic fields and other disruptions, which leads to inner disorientation, habitat destruction due to draught, and high temperatures that destroy biomass.
- Chemicals in the form of pesticides and herbicides are used to kill weeds and pests—-over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually in the U.S. and 6 billion globally (EPA, 2019). They are part of an industrial farm ecosystem. Sprayed or applied ground chemicals travel from the earth up the plant into the stamen, and pollinators absorb them. This causes brain dysfunction, and in the case of bees, results in inability to locate hive, relate to the Queen or reproduce. Hive collapse is one outcome. Chemicals in the form of fertilizers also have a deleterious effect on nervous systems.
Industrial farming standardizes planting, utilizes high amounts of insecticides, and fertilizers that run off and poison water supplies. Most insecticides have been shown to block insect reproduction, including bees. Fertilizer run off into waterways has also created a 7,775 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The European Union is moving to phase out 22 toxic pesticides, 5 that are outlawed are actively used in the US. Interestingly, many studies indicate that fields with high loads of pesticides were no more productive than fields that did not use pesticides.
The Power of One and Many: If ever you have ever doubted your power to make a difference, consider the case of the Monarch butterfly. Millions of Monarch butterflies make a 2,000-mile journey each year from Canada to winter in Central Mexico. They depend on the warmer weather, and especially the fir and pine tress to multiply and sustain their species. Loggers and farmers frequently attempt to or succeed at cutting down these trees to make money.
Interventions by environmental activists, who risk their lives to save the trees, have protected more areas than in the past. This has resulted in the population of Monarchs increasing significantly, by some estimates last year by 144 percent—growing spatially from 6 to 14 acres of density. That’s what’s possible, and you can start at home, without risking your life.
The key question is: what can you do to help increase the populations of pollinators?
- Buy Organic, Including Honey: Organic farmers place less stress on the environment, and cause less disruption to nature, including bees. Look for labels on food that clearly state organically grown, and information on how it’s actually grown. If you shop at farmers market, you can ask the farmer/retailer about their farming processes; or you can look for more information on their website.
- Plant trees and bushes that attract bees and butterflies. You can get a list of such plants from your local garden store or online. If you are concerned about bee stings, plant bushes a sufficient distance away from the house. Plants that attract butterflies can easily be potted and planted on your deck. Refrain from planting plants that are worthless to pollinators.
If you live in a suburban area, ask the parks department to plant bushes to attract bees and butterflies. Everyone loves butterflies. This will help compensate for all the ‘weeds’ that are removed from gardens or housing developments that attract butterflies. Thistle, for example, is a great butterfly attractor, yet often completely removed from land and garden areas.
- Ask farmers in your area to plant plants that attract pollinators. They can plant them in locations that don’t interfere with production, for example in boundary areas, around entrances or barns or fence areas, or at the end of rows.
- Raise issues at your City Council meetings by asking what’s being done to increase pollinators. It benefits everyone, adults and children alike. What looks uniform and beautiful to the uniformed eye is often biologically dead or dying. For example, wineries and growers plant row after row of vineyards, which are essentially a monoculture, offering little biological diversity or complexity to attract pollinators. This is a disaster for entire geographic regions.
- Visit wine tasting rooms and let wineries know that it’s better for the ecology of farming in the region to plant plants that attract pollinators. You can bring the wineries lists of possible plants. It’s a relatively inexpensive undertaking.
- If you have kids at home, make sure they learn about the importance of pollinators, and participate in planting plants that attract them. Then point out small victories of actually attracting butterflies or birds, for that matter. The ‘birds and the bees’ is an ancient and wonderful story.