Do you think that humans are more important than bugs? Before you scoff consider that we are at risk of losing flowers, fruit trees and much of the global food supply because we are wiping out bugs. We are losing our pollinators. Bees, butterflies, bats and numerous pollinating bird species are all in decline in the U.S. and globally.
According to an important study by the United Nations, 2 out of 5 species of invertebrate pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are headed toward extinction. Of vertebrate pollinators, such as hummingbirds and bats, 1 in 6 species are facing extinction.
This is no trivial matter. It has enormous environmental, economic and food security implications. There are approximately 20,000 species of pollinators on the planet and they are key to hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of crops each year — from fruits and vegetables to coffee and chocolate.
There are many reasons for these declines although not all are well known. At the top of the list is pesticide use, including the sprays and various poisons people use in our backyards. Another factor is that industrialized agriculture has switched to growing huge monoculture crops that have eradicated plant diversity and wild flowers that pollinators use as food. Paving over paradise has led to massive destruction in habitat in urban settings. Finally, global warming appears to be adding to the pressures by reducing habitat, especially for some species of native bees.
Both the cultivated European honeybee and indigenous native pollinators are struggling. The latter is particularly serious. While honeybees aid in pollination the native species are much more effective. Scientists studied pollination in dozens of crops in every populated continent and found wild pollinators were twice as effective as honeybees in producing seeds and fruit on crops such as coffee, onions, almonds, tomatoes and strawberries.
In 2013 one of the biggest recorded single event bee die-offs took place in Wilsonville Oregon. A landscaping company had sprayed a neonicotinoid pesticide on linden trees in a Target Store parking lot. The trees were in bloom, which attracted bees. At least 25,000 mostly native bumblebees died as a result. In an attempt to reduce further bee kills, workers wrapped protective netting around 55 trees. Visiting the site was disturbing. Looking at the plastic-covered, chemical-soaked trees poking out of an asphalt parking lot left me with a deep sadness and sense of bearing witness to apocalypse.
Although native pollinators may be more efficient, cultivated honeybee hives are critical to large-scale food production and aid with native pollination. And honeybees are facing serious challenges of their own. A variety of factors including an invasive varroa mite are hammering honeybee populations. According to the USDA, just over 40% of commercial honeybee colonies collapsed in the 2015 survey, which was down slightly from the 45% loss of two years earlier!
Growing awareness of the demise of our pollinators has led to a growing movement of hobby and urban beekeeping. In 2012 I joined the buzz, when I had honeybee hives installed at the Oregon Governor’s residence known as Mahonia Hall. The Willamette Valley Bee Keepers Association approached me with the idea and took care of the basic maintenance. I, with the help of my First Lady assistant, created a “brand” called Mahonia Gold, Political Pollen. It was delicious and a highly sought after little gift.
Shortly after that I installed a hive at my personal home in Bend, Oregon. It was something of a neighborhood affair since my good friends, Jason and Marla Jo Hardy, also got a hive. As with so many things in my life, they have been incredibly helpful me care for the new addition. We were immediately hooked. I put a little stool next to the hive and also had a little Plexiglas window installed so that I could peek into the hive’s inner workings. Throughout the summer I watched them do their work in my yard and my flowers, veggies, raspberries and strawberries thrived.
But sadly, like so many others, my first colony didn’t make it through the winter and one of the Hardy’s colonies failed as well. It was like losing a beloved pet and disturbing in its ramifications. We started over.
Just about a month ago, here in Bend, we had a bout of relatively warm weather and I checked our neighborhood hives to find the bees alive and abuzz. They made it through the winter. When I posted this happy news on Facebook many of my fellow bee enthusiasts reported that their hives had not survived.
I recently attended a “Bee Academy” in Tumalo Oregon to learn how to best care for my colony of pollinators. For anyone interested in keeping bees and supporting pollinators (and getting some delicious honey in the process) there are many resources to help get started. For a general starting point to find resources in your area check out the Pollinator Resource Center at Xerces Society (http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center/).
And for general rules of thumb for protecting pollinators and therefore our food supply think about the following:
- Avoid using pesticides in your own yards and gardens. There are many safe, healthier alternatives.
- Fill your gardens with plants that attract and nourish bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
- Support local and state bans on neonicotinoid pesticides that are particularly destructive to pollinator species.
- Buy organic food whenever you can and demand it more, and more affordably, when you can’t find it.
Pollination is needed for approximately three-quarters of global food crops. It’s really insects, not humans, who have the ability to protect global food security. The next time you think about swatting that buzzing insect think about how important she might be.
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