- Environmental Health -

Why Pollinators Matter

Pollinators play a critical role in maintaining ecosystems and human food supplies, but several factors are making it harder for them to do so. You can help in many ways.

Bees pollinating purple flower

Scientists have long known that bees and other pollinators are important keystone species. They disproportionately affect a natural environment relative to their abundance, and they’re critical in maintaining ecosystems. They’re also vital to global food supplies and economies. Consider these examples:

  • Three-quarters of the world’s flowering plants and more than a third of its food crops rely on animal pollinators for reproduction. The presence of native bees increases crop yield.
  • More than half of our fats and oils (palm, canola, sunflower) come from animal-pollinated plants.
  • More than 150 food crops in the United States depend on pollinators, including almost all fruit and grain crops.
  • The USDA estimates that pollinator-dependent crops are worth more than $10 billion per year.

Pollinator Profiles

Studies have revealed a dramatic decline in insect populations worldwide. This matters because mosquitoes, beetles, wasps, and flies all play an essential role in pollination. Meet some of the other key players and learn about the factors putting them at risk.

Bees

We’re known for being busybodies. You’ve likely seen us bumblebees (there are more than 250 species) filling the baskets on our legs or abdomens with pollen to bring to our hives and inadvertently carrying pollen on our furry bodies from one flower to another.

Or perhaps you’ve tried the sweet treat made by our honeybee relatives. Speaking of them, did you know that commercial honeybees are transported thousands of miles to pollinate almond trees in California and apple and cherry trees in Michigan? They also help grow strawberries, avocados, kidney beans, coffee, flax, and walnuts, to name just a few examples.

In the past two decades, managed-honeybee numbers have dramatically declined, partly because of colony collapse disorder — a sudden loss of a colony’s worker bees, which are necessary to sustain the colony. Meanwhile, many bumblebee species in Europe and North America have gone locally extinct.

The reasons for our massive casualties are complex, but parasites and diseases, pesticides, insufficient food and nesting resources, and climate change are all likely contributors.

Birds

You know us as colorful crooners, but the humming­birds, spiderhunters, sunbirds, honeycreepers, and honeyeaters among us are prolific wildflower pollinators. We’ve hardly met a brightly colored — red, yellow, or orange — tube-, cup-, or funnel-shaped flower that we haven’t liked.

In fact, the iconic giant saguaro cactus, found in the Sonoran Desert, could not reproduce without the assistance of white-winged doves, who sip nectar from the cacti blooms.

Recent studies have revealed sharp losses in our fellow populations across Europe, while another report noted that 3 billion of us have been lost in North America since the 1970s.

Your household outdoor cat does more than ruffle our feathers; it increases our mortality rates, as do pesticides, climate change, and glass-window strikes. Annual illegal hunting of millions of migrating songbirds continues to reduce our numbers across southern Europe and the Middle East.

Butterflies, Moths, and Skippers

We’ve long been ambassadors of nature, brightening backyard gardens and pollinating many flowers in wild spaces. We’re noted cultural and spiritual icons of transformation and rebirth.

We’re tiny but mighty! Monarchs are legendary for their herculean, multigenerational migratory journey from Mexico to Canada. Painted ladies travel up to 100 miles a day and top out at speeds of 30 mph.

We’ve also become harbingers of widespread environmental changes. Lepidopterans are one of the most diverse insect groups, but monarch numbers alone have plummeted by 90 percent in the last 20 years. Fifteen of our species disappeared completely from the Netherlands between 1890 and 2017.

Loss of habitat and plant diversity, agrochemical pollutants, climate change, and invasive species all threaten our survival.

Bats

We’re the only mammals that can fly, and we have serious echolocation skills. We sometimes carry disease, but we’re mostly harmless to humans. In fact, many people prize our droppings (guano) as fertilizer.

We’re naturals at pest control, consuming vast amounts of harmful agricultural bugs and other insects. Our nectar-feeding brethren pollinate cacti and agave in North American deserts as well as a wide variety of plants in the tropics. The great baobab tree of the African savanna — known as the African Tree of Life because of the number of wild species that depend on it — relies solely on us for pollination. Up to 98 percent of all rainforest regrowth comes from seeds that have been spread by fruit bats.

White-nose syndrome — a fungal disease attacking those of us who hibernate in caves through the winter — has killed millions of us in the United States and Canada in recent years. Our flight patterns and love of tree roosting increase our risk of collision with wind turbines.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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