What happens when you lose pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies? It hurts our food supply.
The world's pollinators have been in decline for decades. Monarch butterfly populations have dropped 90 percent in the last 20 years. There are 45 percent fewer insects than 40 years ago. Those numbers are horrifying, because bees, butterflies, bats, birds, moths, flies and beetles are vital to life on Earth.
About 85 percent of plants need pollination to reproduce. They provide food, fiber and medicine to wildlife, livestock and humans. Pollinators are responsible for 40 percent of the world's food, 150 food crops in the United State alone, including fruits and grains.
As insect numbers drop, so does the number of birds that feed on them. Consequently, those that feed on birds suffer, too.
Plants in healthy ecosystems purify the air we breathe and prevent soil erosion. If they are not fertilized through pollination, they die off. Without pollinators, ecosystems would destabilize as native plants disappeared, affecting all living things, including you and me.
Causes of pollinator decline
We are losing pollinators mostly from chemical pesticide use. A recent article in National Geographic covered a new study pointing to neonicotinoids (neonics) as the main culprit. It states that neonics are 1,000 times more toxic than DDT and that they persist in the environment for several years, continuing to poison pollinators, soil and waterways.
Widespread use of broadleaf herbicides, such as glyphosate, is destroying habitat, food and nesting sites for native bees and other pollinators. If the plants aren't eradicated, they become toxic dining halls, eventually killing off the diners.
Urban sprawl and construction raze valuable wild spaces where native pollinators and native plants depend on each other. Climate change is also responsible for habitat loss. As regions get colder or warmer, or experience extreme weather events, plants and animals find it difficult or impossible to adapt.
Across the vast farmland in the Midwest and California, there is no biological diversity to feed and shelter pollinators. Monocropping of corn and soybeans, and the subsequent use of powerful herbicides to kill "weeds" is detrimental to the pollinator food supply.
What you can do
There are 4,000 species of native bees in North America. They are more important than other pollinators, so we should be attracting them to our yards. Create habitats in your yard that will provide food, shelter, nesting and water.
Bees need nectar and pollen in their diets. Nectar provides sugar for energy, and pollen is full of necessary fats and proteins. Adults also feed the larvae in the nest with what they gather from plants.
Attract native bees with native plants. Wildflowers are crucial to their survival. Check with the Native Plant Society for good varieties for your locale. They usually hold a plant sale in the spring here in Taos.
Design your yard for constant blooms from spring through fall for a steady supply of food. Choose a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials and reseeding annuals. Dandelions, one of the first things to bloom in spring, attract pollinators to your yard early in the growing season.
You can also provide food with cultivated plants. Use early flowering bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and culinary herbs. The more diversity, the better. Aim for something to be in flower all season long.
Bees forage in a small area, so use large plantings of a single color for visual attraction. They will be much more productive in a 3-foot square patch of yellow or blue flowers than if the plants are scattered throughout the yard.
Leave shallow bowls of water for them to sip on. Add small rocks so they have a place to land and drink. Keep the bowls clean to prevent disease. For bees that like mud, create small depressions in the yard to collect rain water.
Avoid invasive plants, and always garden organically.
Providing bee shelter
About one-third of native bees nest and overwinter in dead trees, rocks, leaf litter and stems of perennial plants. Create a wild corner with logs, rocks and plants you don't cut back. Leave it natural for best effect.
Most bees are ground nesters, living and reproducing in burrows underground in open spaces. Avoid disturbing soil by tilling or grading. In your wild corner, leave some bare ground for them.
Unlike bees, butterflies do not nest. They lay eggs on host plants that larvae eat when they emerge. Sometimes food and host plants are not the same. A wildflower meadow with a wide variety of plants will attract butterflies and house and feed them. Check with the Taos County Extension Office to find our native butterflies and their plant needs.
Plant milkweed for monarch butterflies. Collect seed in the fall and plant it in a wet area of your yard, even where the rain comes off the roof.
Honeybees are an introduced species. They do not exist in the wild, so beekeepers must take care of them. Honeybees do their fair share of pollinating our food, and they provide us with honey.
Older honeybees collect nectar, which is converted to honey to store as food for winter. Pollen is fed to the younger bees back in the hive. The pollination of plants is somewhat incidental.
Improve pollination in your neighborhood by asking a local beekeeper to put a hive or two in your yard. Katee Kleiber, a fifth-generation beekeeper who owns High Desert Honey Company, would be happy to oblige. She has hives in various places around the valley.
She sees her bees feeding on hollyhocks, Russian sage, sunflowers, monarda (bee balm), fruit tree flowers and alfalfa, but they also forage a few miles from the hive. Kleiber also said her garden production doubled when she added bees.
Keep small aviaries and honeybee pollinations alive. Buy local honey, beeswax and propolis, and contribute to the local economy.
If this all sounds overwhelming, rest easy. You don't need a huge garden or large acreage to help out pollinators. Any small planting will do, even a window box of flowers or a planter on the patio. But every bit helps.