Despite COVID-19 we still have chocolate, almonds and peaches. These foods could disappear if we are dealt a different biological disaster: if we lose our pollinators. In 2006 the U.S. Senate had the wisdom to recognize the importance of pollination by passing Resolution 580, which states that pollinators are essential for “an estimated 1 out of every 3 bites of food consumed in the United States." The resolution further promoted public awareness of pollinators by designating National Pollinator Week. This year NPW is June 22-28.
For a Congress focused on critical economic concerns to spend time on such an issue may seem frivolous. But consider this: If pollination were to diminish by even one-fourth, the results would be disastrous for everyone. Pollinators are essential to the environmental framework we are a part of and upon which we depend for food. For our national representatives to acknowledge this reality was hardly frivolous. For them to recognize that healthy environments and a strong economy are intertwined was especially astute.
Who are these airborne creatures that move pollen from one flower to another? We are accustomed to bee, wasp and butterfly pollinators. Beetles, flies, moths and mosquitoes are also important. We think of hummingbirds as backyard visitors drinking nectar from hanging containers, but they are also significant pollinators. Some flowers in the American tropics that depend on hummingbird pollinators for their propagation are absent in regions without hummingbirds. In the Sonoran Desert nighttime bats pollinate Saguaro cactuses.
In addition to the vital role pollination plays in providing our food, its economic impacts are substantial. The Senate resolution states that "animal pollinators generate significant income for agricultural producers.” Included among the frontline pollinators are domestic honeybees. The resolution noted that if the size and general health of populations of pollinators were to decline on a national or international scale, "a significant threat to global food webs, the integrity of biodiversity, and human health" would be forthcoming. Clearly, it is in everyone’s best interest for the world to maintain healthy populations of pollinators.
For some worthwhile pandemic activities at home during NPW, check Pollinator Partnership (pollinator.org), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to promote the health of pollinators, critical to food and ecosystems, through conservation, education, and research.” Their goal is a vital one for humankind, not only nationally but globally. They assert, "Pollinators are essential to our daily life.” Check the list of foods requiring pollinators. Some might surprise you. Join the Pollinator Power Party (epri.com/pages/sa/pollinators) hosted by the Electric Power Research Industry for lots of educational material.
What should we do, or not do, to ensure pollinating insects and flying vertebrates remain with us and fulfill their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems? The evidence is mounting up. We are losing insect biodiversity and abundance, including pollinators, around the world at an alarming rate. Among the identified offenders that humans have control over are unregulated land development, air and water pollution, and pesticide poisoning, Simple formula: limit development, curb pollution, curtail pesticide use. Ironically, some of the pesticides viewed by certain folks as essential to our agricultural economy are considered by others to be prime culprits in the decline of pollinator insects. Make sure yard plants you buy from a nursery have not been treated with insecticides. You could end up with dead butterflies littering your patio.
Pollination of native plants and agricultural crops is one of those critical biological services we take for granted because it is taken care of at no cost to us. More than 75 percent of the world's crop plants depend on pollination by flying animals to produce seeds or fruit. No pollination, no crops. Think about it. Pollinators work for us day and night around the world. Let’s do our part by preserving them and their natural habitats. The cost of failing to do so is incalculable.
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Caption: A buttonbush plant depends on many insect pollinators. Photo courtesy Whit Gibbons.