Going beyond beekeeping to protect pollinators

It is no stretch to say that civilization depends on pollinators. More than a third of global food production depends on animal pollinators. Birds, bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, and other small mammals help pollinate not only food crops, but also flowers and other plants of commercial and ecological value. Honey bees alone pollinate 90 types of commercially grown food crops. And in nature, there are tens of thousands of other species of bees that pollinate plants. But honeybees and other pollinators are in trouble.

Pollinators at risk

Studies show that the biomass of flying insects has decreased by 76% in the last three decades. Honey bee hives suffer from colony collapse disorder. This mysterious sudden die-off is thought to be a symptom of larger environmental problems affecting all pollinators – pesticides, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change. Each of these factors directly harms pollinators, and the effects are compounded by synergy between them.

When pesticides are applied to gardens, they kill pollinators as well as pests. It takes one hectare of flowers to feed a colony of bees. Many urban areas do not have enough forage to feed all the pollinators, especially since many green spaces are covered in pesticide residues. Climate change is disrupting the weather and temperature patterns to which pollinators are adapted. Changing seasons also disrupt the flowering periods of native plants that pollinators rely on, while encouraging the growth of non-native plants that are not efficient nectar producers. This worsens the quality of habitats and creates stress for pollinator populations. Stressed populations are more susceptible to disease and non-native parasites.

Plums, apples, almonds, avocados, squash, broccoli, and coffee are just a few of the many foods that rely on animal pollinators.

Habitat Assistance

If you want your own honey, you may want to keep your own hives. But to truly protect your native pollinators, you need to go beyond beekeeping. You can provide bee houses and bird houses and even bat houses for native pollinators.

If you use pesticides in your landscape, the first step is to dispose of them. By avoiding pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, in our gardens, we can make habitats safer for honeybees and other pollinator populations. Neonicotinoids, once touted as safer pesticides because they are less toxic to mammals, are particularly harmful to bees. Maintaining healthy soil and a variety of crops will reduce the risk of serious pest infestations. When problems arise, try safer, organic pest control solutions instead of toxic chemicals. And remember that perfection does not exist in nature – some insect damage is natural and part of a healthy ecosystem.

Honey bees themselves are introduced species and, while not invasive, compete with more specialized native pollinators. Find out what pollinator species belong in your area (EarthDay.org’s citizen science challenge can help you track what you see) and learn about their needs. Plant a pollinator garden filled with native plant species that your local pollinators rely on the most. Diversity in farming is key to providing food for different species, as well as providing forage over time. Pollinators need to eat for more than a few weeks in the spring.

Think beyond garden plantings to include insect watering stations and birdbaths. Although mulching is critical to plant health, leave some patches of bare soil to provide soil-nesting bees access to their native soil, and create a small brush pile to cover all kinds of garden wildlife. In the fall, let the leaves lie on the ground rather than raking them. Foliage provides important protection for overwintering insects. Even if you don’t spend much time in the garden yourself during the winter, think of ways to welcome winter wildlife into the garden.

Bees drink water in a birdbath
Birds will welcome the addition of a bird bath to your garden – and so will thirsty bees if you add a few rocks to give them a place to land.

Outside the garden

Average foraging distances for native pollinators range from 50 feet to ½ mile. Extend the benefits of your actions beyond your garden fence. Share the Pesticide Deposit and encourage others to sign it. Public policy can also help. Write to your representatives in Congress, encouraging them to petition the EPA to regulate pesticides that are harmful to beneficial insects.

The connection between how much you drive and the flowers blooming in your yard may not be immediately obvious. But your carbon footprint contributes to climate change. The consequences of climate change—altered weather patterns, extreme storms, and wildfires polluting the air of entire states—have a direct impact on the survival of pollinators. When you take climate action steps like driving less, you’re helping more than just reduce the block. You protect the pollinators that support civilization as we know it.

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