Pollinators: an essential natural investment

Technically speaking, pollinators are “the biotic agents that move pollen from the anthers to the stigma to accomplish fertilization.” Very literally, the birds and the bees of the flowering plant world!

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification. While pollinators do include both birds and bees, this group also includes wasps, ants, flies, butterflies, moths, and some reptiles and mammals. Even gardeners can be pollinators, hand pollinating plants to prevent contamination and maintain pure genetic strains.

Some plants have co-evolved with the local pollinators, and the loss of native pollinators could lead to extinction of these unique plant species, as the pollinators and plants have evolved to be specialized for each other.

It is estimated that over three quarters of all farmed crops require animal pollination, so along with pollinator decline and the loss of specialized plants, we also face the crucial issue of farmed foods not being pollinated. The economic impacts of pollinator decline are already being felt in many areas. Where native pollinator species have become scarce, farmers have to replace them with managed bee populations, which involves added cost and work.

So, its clear that we are facing some problems with pollinator decline, but why is this happening? And, what can be done to restore pollinators to a healthy level?

It is hard to say definitively that there is one thing that has caused pollinator decline. However, there are several factors that have been linked to it, one being the use of neonicotinoids, a family of insecticides often used in agricultural applications. Hives have also been killed by reckless over spraying for mosquitos, and colony collapse disorder is thought to be linked with pesticide use as well as a persistent parasitic mite.

Neonicotinoids have been banned in most of the European Union (on a limited basis, and the ban is up for renewal), and in some states and municipalities in the US. Also, some companies, including Home Depot and Lowes, have pledged not to sell plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids. Shareholder activists brought pressure on these two companies to ban these pesticides, and after building momentum for several years, Lowes is phasing out neonics by 2019, and Home depot by 2018.

Trillium Asset Management, a partner group that Natural Investments works closely with, was a catalyst for the consortium of investors that convinced both companies to address this issue. Trillium Vice President Susan Baker had this to say:

Home Depot’s public commitment will better position the company to meet the demands of an increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base. And, it sends an important market signal that restricting the use of bee-harming pesticides is essential to stemming chronic bee declines.

Increasing habitat for native pollinators is also an important strategy. Given some pollinators’ small size, the availability of habitat for nesting must be in close proximity to their food sources. Areas of monocrops or regularly-cut grass, where there used to be a wide variety of wildflowers, flowering trees and shrubs, are not designed with pollinators health in mind, and have probably contributed to the decline in pollinators. By protecting or restoring more diverse plant communities, you can support the diversity of pollinator species in an area—which, in turn, supports the continuing diversification of the plant species that can do well.

One group doing this is Bee City USA, a national nonprofit organization that works to provide large swaths of pollinator-friendly habitat. They’ve certified 30 cities and 14 campuses across the nation as pollinator conservation advocates, and are always open to volunteer community activists who want to become advocates and educators in their local areas.

Looking forward, treating pollinators as valued members of our ecosystem, of our food shed, and of our economic system could help their numbers to rise. Especially in areas of widespread agriculture, avoiding pesticide use and allowing riparian and buffer areas between fields to maintain local flowering plants will help increase both the health of our ecosystem, and the health of our food system.

More information can be found from a variety of sources, including the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, Bee City USA, and from the Pollinator Health Task Force, established by President Obama in 2014.

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Evan Quirk-Garvan

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