We’re all familiar with the term “pollinators.” We know that pollinators of all types help plants reproduce by moving pollen from the male parts of the flower to the female parts, thereby completing the first step in the process that produces seeds and fruits. We also know that bees, especially, are important members of this group. What we don’t usually think about is the fact that they are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food. Not only that, but some of the plants produced from pollination also give us half the world’s oils, fibers, and raw materials. This is an especially important group of birds, animals, and insects. In fact, it’s possible that without pollinators, our food supply would collapse.
Wow. That’s sobering stuff. But is it really true? That depends on who you ask, but all sources I could find say that losses of our pollinators would severely impact our food supply. Read on to see why.
Bees alone are responsible for pollination of crop species that feed 90% of the world. Without them, farmers and beekeepers are out of business. Dairy and cattle industries would be in trouble. Prices on pollinator-based food supplies would skyrocket. Nutrition-related health issues would rise. And it doesn’t stop with the plants we call food. Pollinators are also responsible for 75% of the world’s flowering plants and trees, which are eaten by other animals in the food chain. If we lose those, too, food shortages would almost certainly follow.
There’s also the wider consideration that pollinators enable habitat health and continuation. If they die out, the habitats they support disappears. That means the plants and trees that thrived there, along with the animals, insects, and other creatures reliant on that environment. When they go, the lives that depended on their existence will also die out. Those plants in the smaller habitats played a role in protecting the larger ecosystem. If they are gone, we are left with no means to sequester carbon, stabilize the soil, protect from severe weather, and more. It’s all interconnected. We can’t rip away one or two links in the chain without affecting everything else above and below those links.
There are about 20,000 different species of bees around the world, a couple thousand of which are native to the U.S. 90% of all the world’s bee species are pollinators. Most are interested only in the plants in your yard and will keep to themselves. A few are aggressive—wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, etc.—but usually only when threatened or provoked. The key is to leave them bee. (See what I did there?) You can easily find dozens of visuals and articles online to help identify which bees are which. The two I found are Garden Betty: Easy Bee Identification: A Visual Guide to 16 Types of Bees in Your Backyard and Types of Bees: Pictures and Identification Help. On both sites, the photos are accompanied by descriptions and factoids for each. Great stuff!
Bees aren’t the only ones shouldering this all-important task, though. According to the U.S. Forest Service, other pollinators to note include ants, bats, beetles, birds, butterflies and moths, flies, even some reptiles and slugs or mammals like bats and honey possums. These little guys are doing us a favor just by living their lives, so it’s in our best interests to let them do their thing, and not kill them out of fear or ignorance. Educate yourself on how to handle any that might be pests in your yard without destroying them.
Unfortunately, the “Save the bees” cry is still relevant. According to Pollinator Partnership, pollinator populations across the board are in decline due largely to loss in feeding and nesting habitat. Pollution and other environmental issues are also contributing. We can’t afford to ignore this issue. So, what can you do to help?
- Add a diverse collection of native plants to your yard’s landscaping. Avoid using pesticides here—the point is that the flowers are there for the pollinators. They will likely get eaten, and that’s okay.
- Don’t prioritize a pretty garden over a useful garden. Leafcutter bees *need* to cut circular leaf pieces from your plants for their nests. Caterpillars *need* to eat the leaves of native plants in order to thrive and turn into butterflies and moths. Let them have what they require.
- Give pollinators plenty of accessible habitat in your yard. Leave small piles of branches in your yard where they can attach chrysalis or cocoons. Provide hollow stems or a chunk of log in the garden and allow it to decompose naturally; these are excellent for certain types of beetles and nesting bees. Avoid using weed cloth or mulch that’s too heavy for burrowing bees to get through. Add native bee houses and bat houses to your yard.
- Let your lawn grow wilder. Set aside sections where you can grow wildflowers. Not only do the pollinators need wildflowers for the nectar, but the caterpillars of moths and butterflies feed on native grasses and plants often considered weeds.
- Add a shallow dish of water to your garden. Place several semi-submerged stones in the water to provide pollinators with a place to land so they can drink without the risk of drowning.
- Leave the leaves. Dead leaves and plant materials provide food and shelter for pollinators over the winter.
Far from being scary or a danger, pollinators are essential to our continued health and well-being. Maybe it’s time we helped them as much as they’ve helped us.
Natural History Museum, “Seven Insect Heroes of Pollination”