130 million years ago a beetle first discovered the sticky sweet sap of a coniferous tree, and in that instant the world began to change. Plants evolved flowers with showy petals and fragrances, where nectar could be stored to attract animals to them. Animals in turn developed specialized feeding tools, such as proboscises, and wings that enabled many species to flit from one bloom to another, enabling the plants to propagate. It was a very intimate relationship that developed between the angiosperms and the animals.
Without animal pollinators the Earth will loose some 75% of its flowering plants, including most of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that we eat. In addition to the losses in food supply, we will face a loss in wildlife as well, as insect pollinators not only assist in plant reproduction, but feed large numbers of animals as a keystone organism in the food chain.
Who are the Pollinators?
Honeybees may be the most commonly used pollinator in domestic agriculture, but they are far from being the only pollinators. Wasps, butterflies and moths, flies, gnats, mosquitoes, beetles, and even animals like birds, opossums, bats, monkeys, lizards, and more–transfer pollen from one blossom to another, aiding plants in their reproduction.
There are some 200,000 individual animal species world-wide; in North America there are 4000 species of native bees. In Maine alone we have approximately 400 different kinds of wild bees. Wild pollinators are worth an estimated value of $3 billion annually.
Threats to Pollinators
By now most people have heard about the devastating losses of honeybees around the world, but many do not realize that those losses do not stop with the honeybees. The same ailments that are affecting our domesticated bees are posing problems for the wild bees. Pollinators across the board are being affected, and if we don’t act we will not only be hurting ourselves, but also future generations of man-kind.
Pesticides have disastrous effects for pollinators; insecticides kill pollinators directly, while herbicides do so indirectly by reducing the diversity of the flowering plants supplying pollen and nectar. While most commercial farmers use such chemicals, studies have found that the bulk of the problem is related to residential homeowners whose chem-use is not regulated. Also most homeowners have little to no opportunity for education about the potential impacts of spraying, nor how to properly use them.
Certainly pesticides are at the top of the list, but diseases and parasites, habitat loss, urban development, and exotic invasive organisms, all play a part in pollinator losses.
How the Average Citizen Can Help Pollinators in Their own Backyard
Fortunately many people are beginning to realize that everything on Earth is part of a finely intertwined system. The general public is increasingly inclined to eat local, and to grow organic, striving to avoid the use of harsh chemicals like herbicides and insecticides.
Home-owners can begin to incorporate pollinators in their yards by reducing lawn-size, using native plants, and planting for continuous bloom to provide season-long food for pollinators. Planting in clumps so that blooms are easy to spot, and offering a variety of flower types, shapes and sizes to suit pollinators with varying lengths of proboscises, are also ways to create habitat for these keystone organisms. Native-bee nesting habitats are available at garden-supply stores, as are schematics on how to make your own, and tips for supplying water to pollinators in residential yards can be found too.
Beekeepers in Somerset County are eager to talk with locals about pollinator friendly practices; if you–or someone you know–would like to hear more ways to help pollinators please don’t hesitate to contact us!