Protecting Pollinators: Our Endangered Backyard Species
The basis for the principle of conservation, and why we should care when a species goes extinct, is that every life form plays an important role in the ecological balance of the earth. However, the word ‘conservation’ brings to mind large animals like bears, wolves and bison living in a faraway wilderness. But there are other creatures that need protection just as urgently and are much closer to home. We have multiple endangered species living in the flower beds of our backyards, along our pavements and outside our offices. The animals that pollinate these flowers are in a rapid decline. So how does this affect us? Without pollinators, the human race would face a serious food shortage because most plants, including those that produce our fruits, nuts and vegetables, depend on them.
What is a pollinator? Any flower-visiting animal that carries out the process of pollination or the transfer of pollen between plants. Animals filling this vital role include bees, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and bats. Somewhere between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants on the earth need help with pollination. Pollinators provide this to over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1200 crops, including apples, pears, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, squash, almonds and cashews not to mention the essentials such as chocolate and coffee.
Our planet is in the midst of a crippling loss of biodiversity and pollinators are no exception. Many pollinators are insects and according to a February 2019 study, 40% of the world's insect species are in decline and the total mass of all insects on the planets is decreasing by 2.5% per year. By all counts, these are bleak statistics. This is because pollinators face a variety of challenges, such as habitat loss from degradation and fragmentation, competition with invasives (species not native to the region that can damage the local ecosystem), and poisoning by pesticides.
As native vegetation is replaced by roadways, manicured lawns, crops and non-native gardens, pollinators lose the food and nesting sites that are necessary for their survival. Migratory species, such as monarch butterflies, face other unique challenges - if the distance between the suitable habitat patches along their migration route is too great, then smaller, weaker individuals may die during their journey. In the case of the monarchs, their sole food source, milkweed, is being decimated, making their 3,000 mile journey increasingly risky.
While we cannot easily address habitat loss in the short term for megafauna such as wolves, mountain lions and grizzlies, we can make small yet significant changes in our own backyards for pollinators.
Solutions for both types of pollinators, native and migratory:
Make your yard a haven for native plant species which in turn will attract native pollinator species. In a controlled environment like this, they can flourish if you monitor for invasives and root them out before they can crowd out the native plants. The Pollinator Partnership offers a great tool on their website for picking out plant species best for the pollinators indigenous to your area.
Spread the word. If enough people do this, gardens and backyards can become a “pollinator pathway” of sorts - connected areas that the pollinators can use to traverse developed areas.
This does not mean giving up space for your vegetable patch. Whatever you grow will benefit from the attention of pollinators attracted by the native plants. In fact, the data shows that farms which have turned a portion of their fields into green space have gained back more overall yield.
Invasives are species that are not native to a specific location, but can quickly spread through their new environment, undermining the ecosystem. By their very nature, they are adaptable and thrive under changing and new climate conditions, posing a serious threat to native species which often struggle to survive in new circumstances. Check out the U.S. Forest Service website for more tips on how to recognize and combat invasives.
Invasives cause problems such as:
Decreasing the quality of pollinator habitat: when non-native shrubs take over open fields, they crowd out the wildflowers needed by certain butterfly and bee species for pollen, nectar, or larval food.
Attracting pollinators away from native species that better fulfill their needs: West Virginia white butterflies sometimes lay their eggs on non-native garlic mustard instead of their native counterparts that provide a better environment for the newly hatched caterpillars.
Competing with native plants or animals for resources: European honey bees have been shown to compete with native bees for pollen and nectar; native spring plants like Dutchman’s breeches are shaded out by Japanese barberry.
Introducing parasites and diseases that threaten pollinators: the effects of these parasites have been species-specific, including the mite and virus species that have severely compromised honey bee colonies.
Ironically, some steps to combat the rise of invasives, through the use of pesticides, have caused collateral, avoidable damage on native pollinators. While there has been controversy over which types of pesticides hurt pollinators directly, the reliability of the research is suspect, since some of the published literature was actually funded by Monsanto, the developer of the widely used pesticide, Round Up. The present overzealous use of pesticides has negative “downstream” effects on the ecosystem and to limit these, there needs to be a change in user habits.
Prevention is the best medicine - many plants native to your region may come in pest resistant varieties, for instance, they may have taste that is naturally repellant to certain insects
Bury infested plant residues to prevent spreading the disease to the rest of the patch and hasten decomposition
Use natural pest control methods - there are multiple solutions to try before breaking out the spray bottle - here are a couple examples, and this article also provides a good starting guide.
Grow companion plants - different plant species growing together can form their own repellent, such as how planting tansy alongside raspberry and roses repels Japanese beetles.
Attract helpful predators - the most basic form of pest control has been around since the dawn of human history when cats were used to keep mice out of the grain, and it still holds up. Let ladybugs, praying mantises and spiders do the work for you by adding plants specifically to attract them to your pollinator habitat. Planet Natural Research Center has a guide on these helpful critters, which type of pests they feed on and how to draw them to your garden.
Keep to the minimum amount of pesticide required to be effective - more is not always better, follow the instructions for your product
Targeted rather than blanketed application - use less and reduce your impact. If you see evidence of an infestation on a single plant, spray away but stick with the afflicted plant
As an individual, it’s difficult to see one’s impact on massive issues such as climate change. That can be disheartening. But, you can always make and see a difference in your own backyard and know that you’re helping to combat a global problem. You can literally make the world a better place with informed gardening. How cool is that?
For more information check out these resources:
Header Image Credit: Bill Buchanan, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, fws.gov
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Master's in Media Innovation from Northeastern University Freelance journalist and blogger
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