As the global extinction crisis continues, we are constantly discovering new ways in which the world’s many species interact with our own lives, even if we don’t realize it. The loss of one species can have consequences far beyond the simple absence of one kind of ant or frog. Case in point: the global decline of wild pollinators—bees, butterflies, and other insects. Survival of wild, native insect pollinators is not just a matter of concern for insect lovers like me; it’s also an issue for food production worldwide.
Pollinators are in decline for a wide variety of causes, including loss of habitat and the use of pesticides. But there’s another major threat to wild, native pollinator populations: the threat of disease from commercially managed pollinators. With the serious decline in honeybee populations in the U.S., domestic bumblebees are being called upon more and more to pollinate crops. But these populations often have diseases that are not present in the wild population, and can be passed on to wild bees as they come into contact while gathering pollen.
If you like strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes or peppers, you need pollinators. These species are necessary for 30 percent of our crops; bumblebees alone pollinate 15 percent of U.S. crops. Domestic bee populations are not sufficient to meet the demands of our food pollination needs, and studies have shown that native species are often more efficient pollinators, resulting in higher productivity. And they do it for free!
A recent paper by Aizen and Harder (2009) suggests that the proportion of agriculture that depends on animal pollination has increased over 300 percent during the last half century while managed pollinator populations have increased only 45 percent. This indicates that there are not nearly enough managed pollinator populations to do the job. Native pollinators are critical.
The decline in bumblebee populations is not only happening in the U.S. In the U.K., two species of bumblebees have gone extinct in the last 70 years, and many other species are in serious decline, for many of the same reasons.
There are many things that we all can do to help stem the loss of our native pollinators.
In agricultural settings, pollinator conservation techniques include planting hedgerows and native plants to attract wild pollinators and eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides. One of CI’s partners, the Xerces Society, has developed guidelines for attracting and promoting native pollinators to crops.
Pursuing policy changes and governmental regulations on pesticide use and movement of managed pollinators are also critical actions. Last week, several NGOs, including the Xerces Society, Natural Resource Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate movement of bumblebees in the U.S. in order to keep them within their native range and to certify that domesticated bumblebees are disease free.
On a more individual level, anything we can do to protect, restore or create native habitat will benefit not only incredible insects but also other amazing animals and plants. Plant a native garden in your backyard, rooftop, balcony, schoolyard, windowsill, farm, ranch or golf course; use native flowering plants to provide a stable food source for an array of native insects and pollinators; consider leaving parts of the lawn unmown for habitat and wild flowers; provide water for native insects in a shallow dish or birdbath.
As a part of CI’s new Food Security Strategy, CI recognizes the critical role that native pollinators play in food production. The conservation and promotion of native pollinators is an excellent demonstration of where synergies between food security and healthy ecosystems can occur.