[This article was published in The Recorder, January 18, 2018]
Joe Murray, Burnsville, Virginia
Be the change that you wish to see in the world. Mahatma Gandhi
No doubt you have heard that pollinators are not doing well. Pollinators are on the decline for a number of reasons ranging from pesticide exposure to introduced parasites and diseases. With pollinator populations decreasing, incidents of inbreeding are increasing, meaning effected species face environmental challenges with little genetic diversity. One of the greatest causes of pollinator decline is habitat destruction, specifically changes in land use. If you live in a house surrounded by a yard inhabited by just a few species of regularly mowed turfgrass, you share in the blame. While you may not have personally cleared away wild lands to build your house, we all play a role, however indirectly, in the loss of pollinator habitat. You may think that your yard isn’t having a harmful effect on pollinator habitat loss, but when viewed collectively with other skeptical homeowners across America, the impact is significant. The continued use of land conversion shows no signs of abatement, so habitat loss will continue. Perhaps we can slow the rate of pollinator decline by doing another type of conversion – converting portions of our yards into pollinator habitat. Is your yard part of the problem, or part of the solution?
If you think you can live without pollinators, think again. Pollinators assist in the reproduction of over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. At least 90% of the nation’s apple crop is pollinated by bees and one-third of all agricultural crops depends on pollinators. According to a Cornell study, crops pollinated by honeybees and other insects contributed $29 billion to farm income in 2010. The economic impact from declining pollinator activity in agriculture will be felt by all Americans with rising costs for pollinator-dependent fruits and vegetables in addition to the disruption of entire ecological systems.
John Muir’s prophetic quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” rings particularly true with respect to the interconnectedness of pollinators with other organisms. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 50 pollinator species with populations so low they’ve been recognized as threatened or endangered. Wild bee populations have declined 25 percent since 1990. No pollinator species exists in a vacuum. If pollinators are unable to assist plants in reproduction, organisms dependent upon those plants suffer. The role pollinators play in maintaining biodiversity of flowering plants is now so obvious that scientists confidently correlate plant diversity with pollinator diversity. In short, the health of pollinators serves as an accurate indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem.
The plight of pollinators has not gone unnoticed by policy makers at the state and federal levels. Every June [coinciding with National Pollinator week this year, June 18-24, 2018], governors throughout the United States, the US Department of the Interior, and the US Department of Agriculture formally recognize the importance of pollinators with proclamations, often following with mandates to federal and state agencies to examine practices that may impact pollinators. Every year, pesticide usage is increasingly scrutinized by state and federal agencies tasked with regulating their sale and use. Many federal government facilities and state departments of transportation have made efforts to incorporate pollinator-friendly plants as part of a larger initiative to naturalize landscapes at federal facilities, along roadsides, and in highway medians.
So, is there anything you can do to help pollinators? Absolutely! Recall that habitat loss is perhaps the greatest cause of pollinator decline. Imagine the collective impact homeowners can have on restoring habitat for pollinators if everyone makes an attempt to establish a small pollinator garden. A pollinator garden may be a flower bed, of any size, dedicated to growing native plants that can serve as habitat for pollinators. When selecting plants for your pollinator garden include, as a minimum, at least three species of flowering plants of varying sizes, shapes and colors, so at least one plant is blooming at any time during the growing season. Include night blooming flowers for moths and bats that pollinate nocturnally. Identify and encourage local “volunteer” plants, like dandelions and goldenrod, which support pollinators at the very beginning and end of the growing season. To minimize the distance pollinators have to fly, arrange your plants in “clumps.” Leave your pollinator garden through the winter to provide important cover for pollinators, saving the once a year mowing just before new spring growth.
Native plant species better meet the needs of the native pollinators. When possible, try to purchase plant seeds from local or regional sources since those are better adapted to our local climate, soil, and native pollinators. Avoid modern hybrid flowers and “doubled” flowers which have been bred for aesthetics and not for what pollinators value – pollen, nectar, and fragrance. If you don’t want to research individual plant species, consider purchasing a prepared mix of pollinator-friendly flower seeds from a regional seed supply company like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Share extra seeds with your neighbor!
Another benefit of selecting native plant species is that they are capable of growing without environmental subsidies like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, regular mowing, and irrigation. In fact, it’s in the best interest of pollinators that you eliminate the use of pesticides. Water needs for pollinators can be satisfied with a bird bath or shallow bowl with perches made of half-submerged stones.
The rate at which pollinators are declining is alarming and a sad legacy to pass onto future generations. While you’re debating whether or not to establish a pollinator garden in 2018, imagine standing before a class of third-graders at a local elementary school and explaining your actions. Don’t fall into the defeatist attitude that your part is too small to matter. Collectively, we impact pollinator health; whether that will be for the better or worse remains to be seen. “Is your yard part of the problem, or part of the solution?”
For more information on creating pollinator habitat visit Xerces Society (xerces.org) and Pollinator Partnership (pollinator.org). For wildflower mixes specifically for pollinators visit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia (www.southernexposure.com)