I’ll never forget the first day of sex ed in grade school. Including the subject in our public-school curriculum had been a hard-fought, highly fraught issue, the subject of many emotional PTA meetings, letters to the local news-paper’s editor, signed permission slips — and among us kids, much playground gossip. Most every child I knew had found a copy of The Joy of Sex somewhere in the back of his or her parents’ bookcase or issues of Playboy hidden away from our prying eyes in the garage. Given all the grown-ups’ flat-out hysteria over the topic, we kids were expecting something really graphic and disturbing in sex ed.
The first class was electric. The Catholic students, who hadn’t been granted permission, were herded out of class, and the sex ed textbook was finally handed out. The book’s cover featured pictures of flowers, close up and dewy. What? We waited until at last we were given permission to open our books. We took a collective deep breath, and opened to behold — a maple tree.
The whole book was about plants and insects. Dandelions, clover, bees, butterflies, moths — all delivering pollen from flower to flower, creating seeds. Sex ed was the last class of the day, and I remember tumbling out the door to talk to the other kids. We all scoffed: Sex ed was literally about the birds and the bees — but we didn’t even get to the birds! What kind of idiots did they think we were?
To be perfectly honest, I think that first day of sex ed was the last time I considered pollen and pollinators. Sure, pollen is something that people talk about — to blame for interrupting their lives with runny noses in the spring. But generally, who cares? In a world filled with exciting things like screens, productivity, algorithms, analytics, and sneakers that talk to our phones, maple trees and bumblebees don’t come up.
Except they should.
In fact, they must.
Did you know that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of everything you see outdoors — the plants, trees, flowers — is perpetuated by pollinators? I didn’t know that, having ignored pollinators since grade school. And in case you weren’t taught that in sex ed, here’s the deal: Flowers and bugs coevolved. There were plants before bugs, but they were early things, without flowers. Flowering plants reproduce when pollen from a male flower is carried, usually by an insect, to fertilize a female flower. The male pollen cell carries half the genetic material of the plant it came from; the female flower contains a complementary half. They mix — and voilà. Seeds.
But plants need some help in this process. Why would insects want to come to their aid? Because the plants provide two incentives: First, they make extra pollen, so bugs can eat a portion of it (it’s full of protein). And second, they set out sugary lures of nectar to convince bugs to come on by and get covered with that pollen. That’s why many bugs are pollinators besides the well-known honeybees, including moths, bumblebees, sweat bees, mason bees, and butterflies.
And so it went, all over the world, with all kinds of special species of bugs evolving to help special species of plants, and plants in turn evolving to support pollinators. Of course, once the seeds were fertilized, the plants needed those moved, too, so fruits and nuts were born. On top of this abundance of pollen, nectar, and bugs came birds, which ate and lived on bugs. That’s the foundation of life, the birds and the bees — boring enough to almost kill a grade schooler, and easy for the rest of us to take for granted all these years after our schooling.
Nowadays, though, I must admit that there are things I wouldn’t try to relay to a kid. Case in point: Have you heard about how the honey-bees are in danger, suffering from colony collapse disorder? It’s a spooky affliction that kills about a third of all honeybees a year, and has been doing so for almost a decade.
The best scientists have been seeking an answer to the disorder, and they finally found a leading cause: Humans have soaked the world in poison — pesticides, fungicides, and a new class of pesticide called neonicotinoids, which is applied to seeds and causes plants to create poison pollen and nectar. All those poisons are lowering the honeybees’ natural immunity and making them susceptible to disease. There are parts of China that have been so saturated with pesticides that humans are dispatched into the fruit-tree orchards in spring to use feathers to catch pollen and move it from plant to plant. Many of the tastiest, healthiest things we eat come to us via pollinators — things like almonds and apples and grapefruit, about one out of every three bites of our food. But that’s not even the scary part.
The scary part is that all the pollinator species are crashing — the wild bees, butterflies, and others. Bumblebees are in trouble. Monarch butterfly populations in 2012 were down some 60 percent from the previous winter. So what can we do?
A few things. First, stop feeling bad about spending money on organic food. I see these articles in the conventional press all the time: What good will organic oranges or beets actually do? I’ll tell you what good they’ll do. In addition to tasting better and providing more polyphenols and other good-for-you natural-food chemicals that scientists have just begun to study, organic foods protect us from a GMO-populated, pesticide-sodden world.
Second, do whatever you can to prevent the use of pesticides and herbicides near you. If they’re on your lawn, explore unlawning — turn some of your lawn into a butterfly garden, herb garden, native-plant refuge, fruit-tree orchard, anything that doesn’t add to the poison in the world and the poison in yourself. If you’re involved with a church, hospital, or school, do what you can to convince the people in your community to go pesticide-free.
A lot of this is about aesthetics: Can you learn to love a lawn with flowering pink clover in it instead of nothing but Kentucky bluegrass? I can. Can you learn to love a bouquet from an organic farmer at the farmers’ market instead of a pesticide-soaked commercial rose? I know I can. The next time you plant a tree, can you put in a native-species, pollen-producing tree instead of a foreign tree that local bugs can’t use? I know I can do that, too.
When I realize how much of a role aesthetics play in this, I move from feeling hopeless about the future of bees to feeling hopeful. The people who order thank-you bouquets, the people who serve on hospital boards, the people who buy organic tangerines, the people who have front lawns and trees in the sidewalk boulevard — these are my people! I might not be able to change what people with 20,000-acre corporate farms do with their land. But if I spread the word among my people, we can provide oases for all the pollinators. Hopefully, someday when saner agricultural practices rule, the butterflies and bees can come back, just as eagles and wolves have all over North America.
Here’s a case in point. Near where I live, there’s an endangered bumblebee species, the rusty patched bumblebee, so called because of a cute little reddish blot on its lower back. This bumblebee has been seen in only one spot lately: in the middle of the city where public parks with lots of trees grow side by side with flower gardens. The trees provide habitat; the flower gardens provide food. If every house nearby planted bee food — like Russian sage, peppermint, oregano, and other native trees and flowers — the species could be saved.
The first thing we need to do to save the bees is to remember back to grade school, to how seeds are made, and realize that it’s really not boring after all. The birds and the bees and the flowers and the seeds are essential to life.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.