They Don’t Call Them Worker Bees for Nothing
What often comes to mind when we think of endangered species are large mammals like blue whales and elephants, or birds like falcons. These creatures are connected to primal archetypes in our minds, which help explain why they engage us emotionally. Almost every culture has some animal archetypes and survival stories as part of its image bank and lore.
Think of Noah’s Ark, a formative story in Christianity and Judaism in which Noah, his family, and examples of all the world’s animals are spared from a disastrous flood. A version of this story also appears in Islam. The key is that humans and animals form a co-evolutionary bond for survival. They need each other for the future.
Pollinators are critical to our health and survival, yet they do not figure prominently for many of us. They seem to be less newsworthy even though many are now endangered.
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 kind of daily symphony of activity.
Survival is the biological goal of every species. 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, seeds, herbs, legumes, and fruits, key sources of vitamins and minerals, that are essential to our lives and a healthy diet.
The majority of flowering plant species found worldwide require pollination to make seeds that will become the next generation of plants. Pollination is a two-way street. It is mutually beneficial to pollinating animals, providing them with food, and for plants that depend on it to reproduce.
Pollinators Are at the Center of the Food Chain
Honeybees often come to mind first when we think of pollinators. 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.
The majority of crops that provide most of our nutrition–fruits, nuts, vegetables–require animal pollination. Without pollinators, our diets would be severely impacted, and it would be way more difficult to obtain the vitamins and minerals that we need daily to stay healthy.
In addition, 80-95% 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–is eaten by herbivores, which are eaten by carnivores and omnivores. Plants also provide shelter and nesting habitat for numerous animal species. The entire ecosystem depends on healthy pollinator populations.
Dwindling Bee Populations Threaten Food Stability
Pollinators are declining globally in both abundance and diversity. Bees, in particular, are necessary for the fertilization of up to 90% of the world’s 107 most important food crops. Hive failure rates in Europe and the U.S., for instance, are worrisome at up to 50%. And biomass of insect populations has dropped in parts of Europe by 75%, sounding alarms among scientists worldwide. New research using a massive dataset found that bumblebee populations are dwindling; in North America, you are nearly 50 percent less likely to see a bumblebee in any given area than you were prior to 1974. Moreover, several once-common species have disappeared from many areas they were once found and are now classified as endangered.
The top three causes of the decline in pollinator populations are the destruction of habitat, climate change, and the use of pesticides and herbicides in farming and landscaping. From a habitat perspective, humans have been domesticating wild areas and eliminating native wildflowers and other pollinator-friendly plants like a thistle. Climate change has led to further habitat destruction and swings in seasonal temperatures that are particularly harmful to bees. Finally, chemical pesticides and herbicides are absorbed into soil and plant cells and can make their way into the stamens of plants and into bees’ bodies. This causes brain dysfunction and results in the inability to locate the hive, relate to the Queen, or reproduce, leading to hive collapse.
Without healthy communities of pollinators, entire ecosystems will collapse, and farmers, who 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 hundreds of billions of dollars, and throw an entire ecosystem out of whack. In short, it would be a disaster. Estimates are that bees alone contribute over $15 billion to crop value.
The Power of One and Many
What can each of us do to help reverse the trend?
- Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Save money and your impact on the environment by saving energy in your home, practicing strategies like reducing, reuse and recycle and walking and biking instead of hopping in your car. And if you have to do a lot of driving, consider offsetting your carbon footprint with credit from our partner org.
- Buy Organic, Including Honey: Organic farmers place less stress on the environment, and cause less disruption to nature, including bees. Look for labels on the food that clearly state organically grown or certified organic and information on how it’s actually grown. You’ll find many varietals of organic honey, all made through sustainable farming, on ziggie.com and beeswax products that also support sustainable practices. If you shop at farmers’ markets, you can ask the farmers; or you can look for more information on their website. Buying from local organic producers also reduces carbon footprint, addressing one of the root causes of the decline in pollinators.
- 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 the bushes away from the house. If you live in a suburban area, ask the parks department to plant bushes to attract butterflies. Everyone loves butterflies. This will help compensate for all the ‘weeds’ that are removed from nature; weeds like thistle, for example, are great butterfly attractors, yet are often removed from landscaped gardens.
Encourage Your Local Producers to Plant Trees for Pollinators: They can plant them in locations that don’t interfere with production, for example in boundary areas, around entrances or barns, or at the end of rows. For example, wineries and growers plant row after row of vineyards, which are essentially a monoculture, offering no biological diversity or complexity to attract pollinators.