With all the glorious sunshine and warm weather we’ve been having in DC, I have started to dream of summer. I have dreams of sitting on my porch, soaking up the sun, listening to the buzz of insects around my yard while I sit with one of my favorites – a sliced tomato sandwich – in my hands. But that sliced tomato sandwich – well – that puppy could be in trouble. And so could the bees that work so hard to put it on my plate.
It might be easy to take bees and butterflies for granted when they’re flitting about in your yard, but did you know about 75% of global food crop production is made possible by pollinators? That’s a worldwide value of as much as $577 BILLION every year! Every time you bite into an apple, unwrap your favorite chocolate bar, or pour yourself a warm cup of coffee, you should be thanking a pollinator.
All of this makes some recent news out of the U.N. especially troubling. Last month, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report on the state of the world’s pollinators. The first report of its kind, the Thematic Assessment of Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production incorporates data from 3,000 scientific papers and includes wisdom from indigenous peoples and local traditions from more than 60 locations worldwide. While most assessments of pollinator health to date have focused on regional data, this is the first-ever global look at how our pollinators are faring.
So what did we find out?
Around the world, pollinators are facing some very serious threats. More than 16% of vertebrate pollinators (like bats and birds) are threatened with extinction, and the situation may be even worse for insect pollinators. While it’s harder to study insects on a global scale, experts say that in some regions, more than 40% of invertebrate pollinator species – bees, moths, butterflies and more – are threatened with extinction. And while native bees are important, even the domesticated honeybee has been seeing declines. Not only is this terrible news for pollinators, but with so much of our food dependent on these species, it could easily become a serious problem for the global food supply as well.
The numbers paint a pretty stark picture. But it’s not all doom and gloom. One point this report drives home is that for as many threats as pollinators face, there’s plenty we can still do about it. It’s not too late to save our buzzing, flying friends – or the food they help grow.
Variety is the Spice of Life
One threat to pollinators is habitat destruction. While traditional methods of farming included crop-rotation and companion planting (think the ‘Three Sisters’ if you’re up on your gardening lore) with plenty of space for wildflowers nestled in between, today’s farming world is quite different. Modern trends involve clear-cutting natural vegetation to grow huge fields of mono-culture (one species) crops. This method doesn’t provide the kind of variety needed to support healthy pollinator populations.
One way to help offset this problem is to get your own yard involved. Go to your local garden shop and ask them for recommendations about native plants that will attract pollinators. You can also provide nesting sites for native bees in your yard. Untilled, unmulched, ground with leaf pieces and mud offer great nesting materials for native bees, which normally don’t live in the kinds of hives you think of when you think of honeybees. You can also research the companies and farmers that supply your area. If any of them go out of their way to practice pollinator-friendly farming, consider giving them some of your business.
Defenders is also working to help imperiled pollinators here in the U.S. by pushing to get them protected under the ESA. Native bees like the Blue Calamintha have lost much of their native habitat to development and agriculture. If listed under the ESA, parts of this species’ habitat would receive federal protection.
Park the Pesticides
The U.N.’s report does not offer specific policy recommendations about pesticides, but it does point out the major threats that these substances pose to pollinators. Everything from the type of chemical used, to the amount and method in which it’s applied, to the type of pollinator that encounters it can make a real difference in a pollinator’s survival. Even if a pesticide is not considered lethal, it can still have some pretty negative consequences for a species. Governments and even average citizens can demand that agricultural companies reduce the use of pesticides, use other forms of pest control and, when pesticide use is necessary, incorporate technologies to reduce pesticide drift.
And don’t let yourself off the hook either – home and garden products may be applied at rates up to 32 times higher than agricultural pesticides, so your at-home use can have a really huge impact! Consider natural alternatives to pesticides for your garden. And don’t forget to be careful about what you plant as well. Ask for plants that have not been sprayed with pesticides, and, if you’re starting from seeds, make sure that the seeds themselves are untreated. Certain pesticides, like neonicotinoids, are absorbed into the plant tissue and will impact pollinators throughout the whole life-cycle of a plant.
Outside the garden, Defenders is working in the courts to protect bees and other pollinators from dangerous pesticides, especially neonicotinoids. Just last year we saw some progress when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the EPA’s approval of one such chemical, a neonicotinoid called sulfoxaflor.
There’s Even More
On top of habitat loss and pesticides, pollinators are also feeling the heat from climate change. Bumblebees in North America and Europe have been shifting their ranges as temperatures rise. If the range shifts too dramatically over too short a period of time, the plants that they pollinate may be left without a pollinator. And if plants responding to unusually warm weather bloom before their respective pollinators emerge from their winter slumbers, both the plants and the pollinators could suffer.
Pollinators also face threats from invasive species that compete with them for food, and non-native species that carry disease and parasites. While there is no question that domesticated honeybees are key to our food supply, maintaining strict controls on managed bee husbandry can help prevent the spread of disease.
All told, there is some pretty exciting stuff in this new U.N. report. Yes, the threats are serious, but the opportunities for us to get involved and stop the decline of pollinators are very real. All it takes is a sincere commitment from people like you and me to demand the changes that will protect our pollinators and our dinner plates.