The State of the Pollinator Highway
Updated: May 17
#NoMowMay is gaining dandelions nationwide. This intentional overgrowth provides foraging materials and serves as pollinator pit stops on larger migration pathways. A pollinator highway of sorts, that needs our attention.
There are over 20,000 species of pollen-mover insects and mammals worldwide, 4,000 in the US and Canada alone. Pollinators include an extensive variety of birds, bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, bats, flies, wasps, mosquitos, and frogs.
The bees are probably the most well-known, responsible for pollinating 80% of food crops. The fly is the second most important flower pollinator after bees, and much less appreciated 13. While flower-loving beetles belong to the largest and most ancient pollinator group on Earth, think of the o.g. scarab from ancient Egyptian times 11. And the presumably least loved wasp, which is an incredibly important pollinator and garden pest helper.
The popular honeybee, a naturalized species that originally hitched a ride with the pilgrims, is known for its social hierarchy ways, massive hives, and generalist pollination capabilities. But the majority of bees are actually native, loner types, with very specialized capabilities. For example, only the native bumblebee can pollinate tomatoes through a buzz pollination process. The native hibiscus bee, is the only bee able to, you guessed it, pollinate the hibiscus flower 11. Sunflowers are also pollinated by native bee specialists.
Pollinators provide more services than we give them credit for. They, "stabilize our soils, clean our air, supply oxygen, and support wildlife" 11. They also increase resiliency and recovery from wildfire events 10. Some pollinator species are even irreplaceable keystone species. Losing them would likely result in a cascade of perishing species upending the local ecosystem in a bad way 11.
But as powerful as the pollinators are, they are also quite vulnerable. Imagine a bumblebee fast asleep, curled up within a flower petal, pollen fuzz smeared across its face. Or, a butterfly hanging from the underside of a sweet pea tendril, swaying in the breeze. Cue an erratic summer storm, their respective lives now depend on finding shelter from the elements 11.
Like the bee waking in the storm, we have awoken to the alarming state of pollinator decline happening on our watch. At this moment, over half of the bee species are in peril, with 1 in 4 species approaching extinction 11. Habitat displacement, climate change, and pesticide use are the main reasons why 11.
While traditional farming was once quite hospitable to pollinators, by way of plant diversity and organic operating practices, today's single-crop, industrial farms offer little plant diversity and increased pesticide use. When pesticides do not kill on contact, they help set the stage for pollinator decline over time. “Pesticides impair a honey bee’s detoxification capacities and immune response, increasing its susceptibility to pathogen infection" 10. Neonicotinoid insecticides are especially toxic 10. Learn more about neonicotinoids below.
Displacement due to development rarely incorporates the pollinator stakeholder, leaving flower deserts in its wake. And as renowned bee expert Marla Spivak states, “If bees don’t have enough to eat, we won’t have enough to eat” 11. "Without a robust pollinator population, farms are producing up to 5 percent less fruit and vegetables per year, equating to half a million lives lost due to insufficient food supply and associated diseases" 7. But, “thoughtful gardening strategies can help fill some of these gaps” 11.
It’s easier than you may think to help out. One thing you can do is to find beauty in imperfection. Leave the leaf pile. Refrain from pruning, so plants may provide nesting spots. Accept damage from caterpillars. Leave dead branches until late spring to allow for over-wintering 11. Offer bare soil to provide nesting grounds for native bees 11. Embrace the imperfect. If your garden is perfect, it is not a part of the ecosystem.
If your significant other or roommate complains, tell them you're doing humankind a solid. If your neighbors complain, put up a sign explaining it’s for the pollinators. It's for the bees and the butterflies. Are they monsters?
There are also more active projects you may partake in. Plant native species that thrive in your area and plug into the local ecosystem. Plant a diverse selection that blooms throughout the season, ensuring pollinators have access at all times 11. This also addresses the challenges of climate change, which throws bloom time out of sync 11.
In more promising news, bees are reportedly thriving in cities, “due to lack of pesticides and diverse living spaces” 8. That’s good news for us. Healthy bee populations spillover to other areas, ‘improving species richness and abundance’ 8. The caveat? To make the journey, pollinators need friendly pathways to forage AND find cover. We need more connected, pollinator habitats.
By supporting pollinators and connecting foraging and nesting spots, you are supporting your local ecosystem. Like this article? Read 10 Tips To Expand the Pollinator Highway