Pollinators and pollinator plants are facing a major decline due to human activity and harmful farming, landscaping, and maintenance practices. Perhaps most notably, there has been a significant decline in Monarch butterflies (down 90% over a 20 year period) and several bee species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to name the Monarch as a threatened species, a petition for which was submitted in 2014, but they are expected to make a decision this month. Several bee species are already listed under the Endangered Species Act, with others sure to join soon. The reason these declines matter to us is quite simple: Loss of life - plant, animal, insect - caused by human activity has a detrimental effect not only on the health of our ecosystems, but on our heath as well, as "the food security of humans is dependent on the ecological services that pollinators provide."₁ The sooner we are all able to connect the dots and see the harmful impact of our everyday actions, the sooner we can improve our practices and divert from the path of destruction.
Pollinator plants and insects have a beautiful symbiotic relationship - the plants offer food and shelter to the insects, and in return the insects pollinate the plants, facilitating their reproduction. One cannot survive without the other, so when one is affected, the other is, too. If these key pollinator insects go extinct (e.g. honey bees), we face a serious food crisis. By many accounts, the extinction of bees could send humanity into a downward spiral, as bees pollinate 30% of the crop species that feed the world population. ₂
According to the petition presented to the US Fish & Wildlife Service to list the Western Bumble Bee as endangered, "habitat loss is attributable to agricultural intensification, urban development, and fragmentation of landscapes, ...the recent introduction of non-native fungal and protozoan parasites, ...(and) pesticide application..." In short, human activity that disregards the importance of green spaces is seriously imperiling pollinators' future on earth.
Government, city planners, corporations, and you & I need to shift priority from 'growth and development' to making our cities, farmlands, and backyards hospitable for bees and butterflies. I recently heard someone say something along the lines of, a flower is more beautiful for what it does than what it looks like. This really struck a chord within me. We tend to always judge a flower's beauty by how it looks, forgetting that its real beauty is in what it does; flowers that provide shelter and food to other species are more beautiful than an ornamental nonnative flower that cannot support local pollinators' needs. Since our homes, cities, and farms occupy land that was once greener and wilder, it's our responsibility to reintroduce as much nature, specifically plants that are food sources for pollinators, into these areas as possible. Native insects typically prefer native plant species because they evolved alongside each other and therefore are well-suited for each other; however, I have Russian Sage in my garden, which is native to Central Asia. Despite its non-native status, I frequently see hoards of bees buzzing around its little purple blooms. A little bit of research and good old observation goes a long way when planning your landscaping or garden: which plants do you notice bees buzzing around? Those are the ones you want!
With the world population rapidly approaching eight billion, more and more green spaces are being replaced by impervious surfaces in the form of pavement, buildings, roads, and other city and suburban infrastructure. This poses several environmental issues: These surfaces are impenetrable by water, meaning that when it rains or snows, the water isn't able to absorb into the soil as groundwater and instead sits on top of the surface. As we have seen recently in the Midwest, large expanses of impervious surfaces exacerbate extreme flooding, displacing people from their homes and businesses, washing away topsoil, and turning farmers' fields into mini-lakes. These hard surfaces also contribute to urban heat islands, rising global temperatures, and loss of habitat for pollinators and other species. In order to restore life in these concrete dead zones, we need to be aware of the problem and make our cities and homes more pollinator-friendly by planting trees, shrubs, and flowers that are attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Even the smallest yard or apartment balcony can help create pollinator pathways by putting out flower boxes or other potted flowering plants.
Living in rural Kansas, two of the most abundant problems I see on a daily basis are constant land development and the mowing down of roadside 'weeds'. Land development, in the form of anything from new housing subdivisions to the expansion of a roadway, eliminates more precious green space. It might be 'just an empty field' to humans, but to wildlife it is home. The more we replace nature for pavement, the further we damage already delicate populations like bee species. Probably one of the most common and thoughtless maintenance practices is the habitual mowing of roadsides. I see this along interstates as well as on my own dirt road. Tons of milkweed grows in the spaces between croplands and on roadsides; milkweed is the sole source of food for Monarch caterpillars, so to see it mowed down while in full bloom is gut-wrenching knowing that Monarch populations are already in steep decline. I have heard from folks at the Grassland Heritage Foundation that KC-area residents actually call KDOT to complain about the roadsides not being perfectly mowed and maintained. To me, this just shows where peoples' priorities lie. Mine lie in favor of nature, so I now make calls to KDOT to let them know that I appreciate when they leave native grasses to grow on the roadsides because it supports pollinator species! Many native Kansas grasses and plants, like milkweed, thrive in their limited remaining habitat - roadsides - where they have been sequestered by the demands of 'progress'.
Insecticides (pesticides) widely used in farming, landscaping, and lawn maintenance pose a threat to many plant, animal and insect species. There is a revolving door of campaigns and petitions aiming to ban harmful toxins and chemicals present in pesticides. Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide chemically related to nicotine, has recently come under fire for new research showing that over time it impacts bees' nervous system, causing malfunction in memory, navigation, and their ability to find food. 'Neonics', as they are called, are present in products like Weed & Feed and have been proven to be harmful not only to bees but also to human brain development. A new study conducted by Friends of the Earth showed that "82% of domestically grown (non-organic) fruit and 62% of (non-organic) vegetables carry residues of weed killers, insecticides, and other pesticides" that are linked to autism, infertility, cancer, and Parkinson's disease.₃ Many bans on pesticides have already gone into effect, like the ban on chlorpyrifos in Hawaii; California, New York, and other states are soon to follow suit in the wake of the Trump administration's EPA's unwillingness to ban the substance on a national level despite scientific recommendation.₄ Others, like this week's campaign demanding that Kroger cease use of bee-killing pesticides in many of its food products, are still ongoing.
As always, I am deeply bothered and concerned about the strain we as humanity constantly place on nature, and what this will mean for our future and our children's future. Every time I step outside my door, I make it a point to appreciate the nature that lies before my eyes. I know that it won't be there forever, and I might even see it developed into something man-made in my lifetime. My sadness about misguided human priorities and the loss of natural beauty fuels my desire to learn about the harm we are doing and to share that information with others. I can only hope that our children value the natural world more than we do and that they are quicker to change and adapt than we have been in our modern world thus far.
What can you do to help save pollinator plants and insects?
- Sign petitions, participate in campaigns, and raise awareness about the perils that pollinators face. Sign up for email alerts from the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, The Nature Conservancy, and other environmental organizations, so you can take action on important issues like banning certain farming and lawn chemicals.
- Vote with your dollar! Buy organic instead of non-organic. This extends beyond the fresh produce section and into most food items, including rice, cereal, beans, applesauce and more. When you buy organic, you are avoiding harmful pesticides that harm and kill plants, animals, insects, and people.
- Plant more native plants in your yard or garden! Some native Kansas plants that attract and are beneficial to bees and butterflies are: Milkweed, Coneflower, Goldenrod, Spiderwort, Tickseed, and Aster. When you go to your local garden center, ask which plants are native pollinator plants to avoid planting things that do no good for our local pollinators. The beauty of a garden lies in its abilities, not solely in its looks.
- Call KDOT, MDOT, etc. to let them know you'd like them to leave the native grasses on the roadside for the benefit of pollinators like bees and butterflies. These roadside plants provide an important corridor offering food and shelter to pollinators.
I would love to hear what other ideas you may have! Contact me here and let's chat.
Here are some more images of "roadside weeds" AKA important pollinator plants I found along the dirt roads by our house: