Reverse Pollinator Decline in Your Backyard

Reader Contribution by Mia Rishel
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Photo byartyangel

“If bees disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” You may have heard this quote, often attributed (likely erroneously) to Einstein. And while the words are over dramatic and the message not exactly factual, it is true that pollinators are in big trouble and if their decline continues, so are we.

Pollinators in Peril

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that without pollinators, we simply won’t eat. U.S. farmers rely on one pollinator species in particular, the honeybee Apis mellifera, to pollinate most of their crops. Honeybees produce an estimated $15 billion worth of food each year (a third of the food produced in the U.S.) and if their populations continue to dwindle, consumers will have to pick up the tab. Fresh fruit and vegetables could become luxuries only the wealthy can afford.

Thanks to pollinators, you can enjoy a wide range of products. The apple you’re munching on, the coffee you had for breakfast, the cotton you’re wearing. All brought to you by pollinators.

While bees are our most important pollinators, a myriad of other animals also pollinate: at least 100,000 invertebrates like beetles, wasps and butterflies, as well as over 1,000 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. These animals are all part of the indispensable pollinator-plant ecosystem which, until now, most of us have taken for granted.

In the last few decades, we have seen a steady decline in our pollinator populations mainly due to habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, invasive species and parasites.

We won’t perish with the bees as the quote suggests, but if we do nothing to help them, the ones of us unwilling to shell out $20 for an apple can expect a bland and boring future of wheat, corn and other wind pollinated crops. In addition to flavor and variety, we would also lose a lot of health benefits. We would see a sharp decline in crops and wild plants that provide us with important micronutrients, leading to an increase in deficiencies and severely impacting global food security

Bees going extinct wouldn’t be an isolated occurrence but would most likely come at the end of a long chain of events leaving the planet, and subsequently us, decimated. Spreading awareness of pollinator decline, and ensuring policies are put in place to reverse it, is crucial.

Supporting Pollinators at Home

Photo bymelkhagelslag

The challenges they face are many, but you can help pollinators recover by providing food, water and shelter in your own backyard — or even your windowsill. Here are a few things you can do to help them thrive.

Create a succession of bloom. Plant shrubs, flowers and trees of a variety of colors, shapes and scents and that flower at different times. This will attract many different kinds of pollinators, and provide them with nectar and pollen from spring to fall. Many flowering shrubs and trees provide food early in the spring when it is otherwise scarce. A few examples are cherry, poplar, blueberry and willow.

Provide food for the whole life cycle. This is especially true for butterflies and caterpillars. Animals in adult and immature stages like different plants. Eastern black swallowtail caterpillars only eat plants from the carrot family. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed while adults enjoy a variety of flowers. Plant caterpillar favorites in less conspicuous places as they will be visibly chewed on (hopefully)!

Plant native species. Native plants and native wildlife co-evolved. This makes a variety of native plants the best habitat and food for pollinators, and having plants that thrive in the existing light, moisture and soil conditions of your garden also makes caring for it much easier.

Create nesting places. Most bee species actually do not form hives, but nest and lay eggs in rotting wood or sandy soil. Leaving some dead tree trunks and bare patches of well-drained, sandy soil in your backyard will provide excellent nesting places for many bee species. There are also many different kinds of bug hotels for sale, and it is easy to build your own.

Provide a water source. A shallow dish or birdbath filled with stones or marbles will make a great watering hole for pollinators. They need perches in low water to drink safely. Some, especially butterflies but also some species of bees, prefer to quench their thirst at a mud puddle, which you can easily create by letting a garden hose or faucet drip to dampen the soil.

Plant milkweed. In the last two decades, the monarch butterfly populations have plummeted by around 90% in the east and to near extinction in the west. Habitat loss and the use of herbicides are largely to blame, but another cause is the lack of milkweed, a plant which hosts the caterpillar and thus is necessary for the butterfly to complete its life cycle. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that if two out of every one hundred city dwellers in the eastern U.S. planted milkweed, urban areas could provide around 30% of habitat needed for eastern populations to fully recover. You can easily find out which kind of milkweed is native to your region. No pollinator-friendly garden is complete without it!

These are just a few ideas on how to provide habitat and food for pollinators. Read more about ways you can help them at:

MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ pollinator gardening pages

University of Minnesota Extension

David Suzuki Foundation

The Wildlife Trusts

Mia Rishelis a conservation biologist whose work has taken her many exciting places: rehabilitating wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, helping endangered iguanas in Mexico, teaching predator coexistence in Namibia, and promoting farm animal welfare in Zanzibar. She is Volunteer Coordinator for The Orangutan Project USA, a grant writer for Conservation South Luangwaand a copywriter forFaunalytics. Read all of Mia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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