Help the Pollinators

Story by, Claudia Morgan, Photos by Laurie Schneider. This first appeared in Stillwater Living Magazine.

When most of us see a bee, we swat it away; we step on crawly bugs and we get out the tennis racket to protect ourselves from a flying bat. So why should we care if there are fewer and fewer of them? Because, like birds and butterflies, they all serve an important function: pollination. And pollination is needed for an estimated 50-80 percent of our food supply.

Given that impact, intensive research efforts began in earnest both here in the United States and Europe about eight years ago to understand the causes of the serious decline in these creatures. The primary reason for the staggering losses of honey bees is the loss of their natural habitat.

Despite our best intentions, our actions often have unintended consequences (or as your grandma probably said: “Good intentions pave the road to hell.”) That can be said about the key factors that have caused the massive decline in bees. Land development –ostensibly a good thing for our economy—results in fewer places for bees to find enough food to sustain a healthy population.

Another reason for the decline is the increased use of insecticides and herbicides, both in commercial growing operations and by homeowners. As a deterrent to plant pests, many plants in garden centers and nurseries are treated systematically with a particular class of insecticides, known as neonicitinoids. Neonicitinoids have been proven to be toxic to pollinators. Last fall, two agencies conducted a random survey of plants sold to consumers and discovered neonicitinoid residues in bedding plants sold by Lowe’s and Home Depot.

In the case of bees, these neonics, as they are called, either kill outright, or cause disorientation so they cannot find their way back to the hive. Insects, including pollinators, can also get a sub lethal dose, which leads to decreased immunity and loss of vigor in the hive. This results in the slowing down of foraging activities and the production of fewer offspring.

It has been found that the synergistic effect of fungicides and insecticides used together intensify these deadly affects. But it’s not just the farmers and commercial growers who are at fault. We are all part of the problem, so what can we do?

Six Ways to Improve Pollination:

  1. Provide bees and other pollinators a healthy food source. Bees eat only pollen and nectar, found by going from plant to plant, which results in pollination. Plant an abundance of flowers, flowering shrubs and trees in our neighborhoods. And source these plants carefully to avoid exposing these valuable creatures to even more toxicity.
  2. Offer shelter by leaving some space uncultivated where pollinators can forage and hatch their young. Don’t plant every square inch of your property; plant a bee lawn with clover.
  3. Avoid the use of herbicides and insecticides. Be sure to ask questions at your local garden center. Inquire to be sure they source their plants from non-insecticidal seeds and treatments.
  4. Invite birds and bees to your landscape by planting non-invasive native plants that provide nectar, pollen, and seeds— food for native butterflies, birds and other animals. In contrast, many common horticultural plants do not produce nectar and often require insect pest control to survive. The lists of native plants can easily be found on websites and many local nurseries are stocking them now.
  5. Choose organic or sustainably grown food at the grocery store; it has not been treated with insecticides.
  6. And finally, raise honeybees! It’s a wonderful activity for the whole family and there are many local sources to help you be successful in this endeavor. There are several local honeybee clubs both in Wisconsin and Stillwater plus the University of Minnesota Honeybee Association. We are very fortunate to have many dedicated beekeepers who are knowledgeable. Honey is considered a superfood and is known to help with seasonal allergies.

Claudia Morgan has been in the green industry for over 20 years and is a certified Nursery and Landscape Professional. She co-owns Gardenside Landscaping. 

Further information on this critical issue is available through the University of Minnesota Entomology Bee Lab (www.beelab.umn.edu) led by MacArthur Fellow, Dr. Marla Spivak, who continues to research and raise awareness here and around the county. Watch her Ted Talk and learn more! www.ted.com