Facts of Life as Told by Pollinators
Back in the day we parents squirmed over the inevitable “facts of life” talk with our kids. You know, that talk about “The Birds and the Bees.” And today’s parents are faced with the imperative to add a second “Birds and Bees” talk to their already-overburdened parenting skills repertoire.
This one’s the literal talk about birds and bees—and butterflies, bats, moths, other beneficial insects, and indeed all pollinators—and facts of life about human dependence on pollinators for our survival here on earth.
Plight of the Pollinators
We’re all aware by now of a significant reduction in pollinator populations and the grim predictions of their impending demise since reports in 2006 of one-quarter of U.S. bee colonies suffering a mysterious and lethal disease called Colony Collapse Disorder made big news.
Pollinators are struggling for their very existence; their extinction would diminish the variety of life on this earth, and there’s considerable buzz circling them these days. Currently, our honeybee population is continuing to decline drastically from a variety of causes—primarily parasites, exposure to toxic chemicals such as Bayer’s neonicotinoid pesticides and habitat loss.
Monarch butterflies have joined honeybees as the current headline-grabbing poster children of the dwindling pollinator world. Some butterfly species are already extinct, and it’s been reported that the monarch population has suffered more than an 80% decline in the past two decades—from more than one billion in the mid-1990s to 56.5 million last year—primarily due to pesticides and habitat loss, along with vagaries of weather.
Every time homeowners, farmers, or highway departments mow or spray pesticides on milkweed, they destroy the only habitat and food source nature has provided for caterpillar-stage monarchs and cut the monarch’s life cycle short.
And illegal logging is doing the same to the monarchs in Mexico.
Even designating monarch-protected reserves for overwintering grounds in Mexico hasn’t stopped loggers from illegally clear-cutting reserve acreage and wiping them out.
Why We Care
When birds flutter and dive through flowering trees and shrubs, they distribute pollen, while most other pollinators spread pollen as they flit from flower to flower for a meal of nectar. On the most fundamental level, we humans need these birds, bees, butterflies and a great variety of other pollinators because our food source is reliant on them. A recent report notes that nearly 100 varieties of nuts, fruits and vegetables such as almonds, apples, pumpkins and cranberries require honeybees for pollination, and the production of other types of crops is dependent on different pollinators.
The bottom line is that pollinators are responsible for one out of three bites of food we eat each day.
As for monarchs, they intrigue us. They’re The Beauty Queen of butterflies and engage our attention with fascinating migration patterns. But cosmetic, feel-good sensory pleasures aren’t the only reasons for us to care about them. They are also powerful pollinators, and their steady decline alerts us to the imminence of their extinction.
Pollinator alarm bells sound for even the most ardent optimist, and a simple Google search will inundate you with more depressing facts than you’ll want to know. Consider a recent United Nations report warning that:
• 40% of pollinators face extinction.
• Nearly 90% of all wild flowering plants depend at least to some extent on animal pollinators.
• Pollinators are important to many of the foods that are key sources of the vitamins and minerals in our diet. Nutritionally, the pollinator decline will likely have the biggest impact on the poorest people of the world.
Efforts to Stem the Tide of Extinction
Now for the silver lining: Government, politicians, lawyers, scientists, educators, writers, publishers, conservationists, gardeners, and schoolchildren (and the list goes on) are joining forces to save our pollinators. The White House has released a National Strategy to Protect Pollinators and Their Habitat, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is engaging states to develop a state managed Pollinator Protection Plan and Virginia’s planning process is underway. The EPA is also expediting reassessment of systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids.
On all fronts, efforts are underway to save the pollinators. American novelist Barbara Kingsolver captured our imagination and touched our monarch-loving hearts in Flight Behavior and National Geographic just announced a new book to transform home gardens into havens for Birds, Bees & Butterflies including tips on the art of beekeeping.
Here at home in Central Virginia, we proudly claim the world’s foremost expert in monarch research, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Biology professor at Sweet Briar College and nominee for the prestigious 2016 Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. Dr. Brewer has been studying monarchs for more than 50 years, and for 30 of those years his personal mission has been preservation of this butterfly.
Education Is Power
The international Xerces Society and other nonprofits, colleges and universities, Master Gardener associations and garden clubs are all working diligently to educate citizens on how to protect bees and other pollinators and encourage planting flower gardens to attract and nourish pollinators. In April, a lecture on beekeeping was featured during Garden Day in Lynchburg, hosted by the Lynchburg Garden Club and Hillside Garden Club as part of The Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week in Virginia.
Also in April, Dr. Brower spoke on “Monarch butterflies and the North American Flora” at the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs’ annual convention here in Lynchburg. Other international collaborative efforts include the work of Dr. Dave Goulson, University of Sussex, UK and author of the Sciencexpress review: “Bee Declines Driven by Combined Stress from Parasites, Pesticides, and Lack of Flowers.”
As a Master Gardener, I regularly receive notice of webinars and conferences such as North Carolina State University’s recent conference on “Protecting Pollinators in Ornamental Landscapes.” And I was delighted to see a genuine passion for pollinator protection and conservation by garden club members here in Lynchburg and in Danville recently when I presented Master Gardener programs on “Native Plants for Sustainable Landscapes.”
We as Central Virginia home gardeners and landscapers can flex our leadership muscle by joining the ever-growing swarm of pollinator-rescue “worker-bees.” We can spread the word, join an activist group, become beekeepers and/or plant gardens to attract and sustain pollinators.
Become a Beekeeper
Since bees are the major source of pollination (in addition to producing products such as honey and beeswax), interest in beekeeping is on a steady uptick—even in cities (including Lynchburg)—by those who are passionate about increasing our dwindling bee population. My own sisters, Betsy and Jan, completed a beekeeping course at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and have established honeybee hives in their backyards in Richmond.
Because of the critical nature of protecting and preserving our bee population, beekeeping is now supported by government subsidies in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides grants for beekeeping education, start up supplies and colony stipends for raising bees.
Plant a Pollinator Garden
We gardeners can help fix the “lack of flowers” problem by planting milkweed and a diversity of other flowering plants that provide nectar to support pollinators in our own home and community gardens. These can be flowering annuals, perennials, groundcovers, shrubs and trees. Native plants are at the top of this planting list, since they co-evolved with our native (and most efficient) pollinators, especially native bees. Massed plantings are most effective, but even a few plants make a difference.
Be sure to purchase plants from pollinator-friendly nurseries, garden centers and suppliers that offer pollinator compatible
(non-sterile) plants and seeds suited for our local area. Also look for locally-grown starter plants and seeds at the annual Hill City Master Gardener Association’s ‘Festival of Gardening’ on May 7th at Miller Park. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for free seeds! One of my favorite sources is “roadside weed” seeds when I can beat the mowing crews to them.
Hill City Master Gardener Kris Lloyd writes of her success story in Masters in the Garden, “It is monarch madness at Bedford Hills [Elementary School]! In April 2014, we were sent about 30 milkweed plants by Monarch Watch through a grant program for schools. They struggled the first year, but this year  the milkweed doubled and bloomed profusely in June.” The proof of the pudding was that it attracted monarchs, and Lloyd harvested seed to start additional milkweed plants for distribution to the school community this spring. Original funding from the National Resources Defense Council jump-started Lloyd’s successful efforts at Bedford Hills School, and there are other opportunities for corporate and philanthropic sponsorship of seed and plant resources.
Join the Challenge
The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (millionpollinatorgardens.org) is a “nationwide call to action to preserve and create gardens and landscapes that help revive the health of…pollinators across America.” The campaign began in June 2015 to register one million public and private landscapes that support pollinators. Last summer I added more pollinator-friendly flowering plants to my garden and was thrilled when a dozen monarchs chose it for a fall migratory feasting layover.
My garden’s now registered with the Challenge and beckons visiting grandchildren to share the joy! All this “birds and bees” business can turn into a lot of family fun.
Words & Photos by Susan Timmons