I walk through the old farm field by my house, large orange lilies blooming at the edge, where the grass meets the outhouses. A large bumble bee bumps into the flower of a black-eyed susan, bending it into an upside down “U” with its weight — sitting just long enough for me to pet the back of this soft, furry monster — a popular activity of my 10 year old self. A hawk moth, easily confused for a hummingbird, buzzes my head, on a beeline for the thistle. Back then I did not think much about how important native pollinators were to all of the plants and wildflowers growing around me.
So, given that it’s all at once officially Pollinator Week, Insect Week and the decade of Biodiversity, it seems important to highlight these fuzzy, and not so fuzzy monsters that make sure we still have nature to visit in the future. Unfortunately we spend too much time protecting the charismatic megafauna like the pandas and polar bears and microfauna like the monarchs and honey bees, the 1% of the animal world.
As an entomologist, I am hopeful we can get beyond protecting the furry and feared wildlife and start expanding our palette a bit.
By focusing on only a few species we are missing the opportunity to make a larger impact — and if we don’t take action as many as 500,000 insect species could be lost due to human action and inaction — the largest loss in nearly 66 million years. This could have drastic consequences for $235–577 billion in crops that require pollinators, among a laundry list of other losses.
Fortunately people do care about pollinators. According to a 2019 poll, nearly all Americans (95 percent) agree special efforts to create designated areas where plants support the health and growth of pollinators, like honey bees and butterflies, should be made. But it’s more than just these species.
Charasmatic Megafauna…and Microfauna
I grew up in the age of the age of panda bears and giraffes — those charismatic megafauna we should all want to protect because they do cute things in the zoo like wrap their tongues around a piece of bamboo or throw a big red ball to their mates. The wildlife we could imagine making a stuffed animal out of and snuggling ourselves to sleep with. I fondly remember pasting the World Wildlife Fund panda sticker on my mom’s car window — and later using alcohol and elbow grease to scrape the adhesive off.
I’ve always been curious why we are so obsessed with the flashy, cute creatures in this world. Some researchers have tried to define what makes these species so charismatic and attractive to us. They found these five characteristics make us so intrigued by these animals. They are Rare, Endangered, Beautiful, Cute, Impressive, and Dangerous — about 20 species in the world are included. This research reminds me of my childhood movie nights where my parents had me watching Nightmare on Elm Street one day and Moonlighting the next — a mix of beauty and fear.
Flash forward 30 years and we now have charismatic microfauna. The age of the monarchs and honeybees. Not a day goes by where we don’t hear about the precipitous decline of the monarch migrations and the death of honeybee colonies. I’m not sure these are great stuffed animals, but the same principle applies. Of the millions of species of insects and pollinators in the world, why have we focused on two species in the U.S., one of which is not even native, the honey bee? And at the end of the day, will protecting these species really save the earth? No.
I’m not saying these species are not worth protecting, but this is just a small slice of the wholesale loss of ecosystems we are experiencing globally. According to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 1 million of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species worldwide are threatened with extinction as a result of habitat loss, exploitation of nature, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.
Monarchs and Honey Bees
Every day we seem to hear about the plight of the 1% — the spiraling decline of monarchs and honey bees. A recent NY Times article asks us to empathize with the plight of the honey bee, essentially another form of industrialized farming, where bees are trucked around to farm fields, in a highly artificial and human managed system. Honey bees are essentially an introduced livestock species in North America, and only one of about 4,000 kinds of bees found in North America — and they only pollinate 25–40 percent of our plants. In fact, honey bees compete with our native bees and can spread diseases to them.
The Monarch butterflies are also seeing precipitous declines — down as much as 53% in the past year. Now, this is more concerning and some of the same reasons are likely impacting the other 3,998 pollinators species in the U.S. — habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. But this is still one of many native pollinator species. And one of the top recommendations being given? Plant more milkweed. Unfortunately people are planting milkweed willy nilly, in seed bombs and gift bags. Even worse they are often planting the wrong species of milkweed or planting it where monarchs are not even present — an act that can harm native species and even spread disease among monarchs.
In 2016 the White House created a “national strategy” to reverse America’s declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations . The goal of the plan was “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” Other pollinators meaning the other 200,000 native pollinator species in the world. Out of the 22 page plan, 16 pages are spent just on honey bees and monarchs, leaving the other species in the dust.
Native Bees Rule the Roost
When it comes to saving the planet and our food system, native pollinators rule the roost — but nearly a quarter of them face extinction in the U.S. Four species of those fuzzy monsters, the bumblebee declined 96 percent in the last 20 years, and three species are already extinct. They go silently, without a single news article from the NY Times.
As an entomologist I remember impressing my teaching assistant with all of the “cool and weird” wasp and bee species I discovered on the old farm I grew up on in rural Maryland. But, I’ll admit my favorite is the cuckoo wasp. This little guy disguises itself as an iridescent flashy innocent bee, but secretly invades another bee nest, leaving behind it’s eggs and defending itself with that flashy armor. Much better than that honey bee waggle dance if you ask me. But that’s just me.
At the end of the day, beyond their beauty and diversity, native pollinators are the key to our food security. Like figs? Well there’s only one wasp that pollinates fig trees.
In a study of 41 different crop systems worldwide, honeybees only increased yield in 14 percent of the crops. Who did all the pollination? Native bees and other insects. For example, in watermelons, native bees do 90 percent of the pollination. Native bee pollination creates twice as much fruit as honey bees in blueberries. In tomatoes, native bee species increase fruit production significantly. This is just the bee species. Pollinators also include vertebrates, such as birds, bats, and small mammals, and other invertebrates, including flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths.
Saving the other 99%
- Create habitat. One of the most effective actions you can take is to plant a diversity of native plants on your property. This provides important stepping stones for pollinators in need of a recharge as they look for mates and places to lay their eggs. Plant flowers that support both the adult and larva and leave dead leaves on the ground rather than bagging them. An organization I volunteer for, Nature in the City, is creating these stepping stones for the Green Hairstreak in San Francisco — once thought to be extinct locally.
- Provide nest sites for bees and other pollinators by making bee boxes and leaving ground undisturbed. Most bees are not social and they live in small holes underground.
- Stop using pesticides. All chemicals can harm pollinators. Insecticides can kill them and their young. Herbicides can kill their plant hosts. Fungicides can kill important soil organisms that are beneficial. Unless you are running an industrial farm, try to remove weeds with your hands. We all know how good it is to dig into the soil a bit.
This post was previously published on Greener Together and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Wallpaper Flare