Though small, pollinators play a big role in our lives. They make our world more beautiful — most flowering plant species rely on pollinators to reproduce. Pollinators also are responsible for keeping us fed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports more than 75 percent of the world’s food crops rely on pollination by insects and other animals.
Without pollinators, there would be no coffee, chocolate, tomatoes or apples. There also would be no milk, cheese or ice cream — dairy cows eat alfalfa, which is pollinated by leafcutter and honey bees. Even spring break would take a hit. The agave plant, which is used to make tequila, is pollinated by bats.
Pollinator populations have dwindled over the years, in large part because of practices that threaten their food sources. National Pollinator Week was established nine years ago to create awareness of the importance of pollinators and to encourage Americans to take action.
As part of pollinator week activities at the Mizzou Botanic Garden, agricultural ecologist and writer Gary Nabhan from the University of Arizona will speak during a June 19 dinner about preventing food-chain collapse and investing in pollinator habitats. Nabhan spoke with me ahead of the event about the importance of bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinators.
Caroline Dohack: What role do pollinators play in our food production?
Gary Nabhan: One in every three bites we eat of a typical American meal comes from food crops that require insects and other pollinators. Pollinators should be thought of as allies or collaborators of America’s farm labor force that brings us our daily bread. Pollination ecologists have found that on average, wild bees contribute more than $8,000 an acre to crop production … Of some 1,400 crop plants cultivated for food and fiber around the planet, four out of five require pollination by animals. In the United States, the pollination services of food and fiber crops offered by bees and other insects is valued at $10 billion annually. Globally, pollination services are valued at more than $3 trillion.
Dohack: What factors have contributed to declining pollinator populations?
Nabhan: For decades, the fragmentation of diverse habitats around our farms and gardens has contributed to pollinator declines. But for the last 50 years, the “chemical fragmentation” of these habitats has particularly taken its toll, as herbicides decimate nectar sources and larval hosts plants while insecticides directly kill or disrupt the behaviors of the pollinators themselves. In addition, the effects of climate change through drought, heat waves and catastrophic weather events have also diminished the availability of food and shelter for pollinators. The introduction of exotic diseases and pests like varroa mites have also impaired pollinator health.
Dohack: If current trends continue, at what point could food security become an issue?
Nabhan: We need to take positive actions to prevent such worst-case scenarios from ever happening. The dozen or so farmers on our Make Way for Monarchs advisory board have already taken tangible, cost-effective steps to bring back local populations of native bees, bats, hummingbird and monarch butterflies.
Farmers need to proactively engage in being part of the solution, rather than waiting to see if the problem will get worse. It might mean cutting back on the use or modifying the timing of agrichemical application and adopting integrated pest-management strategies that are more efficacious over the long haul. But more than half of all farmers in the United States set aside and enhance habitat for wildlife, so this is nothing new. They just have to remember to target the species and management of that field-side habitat in conservation reserves to benefit the little but colorful wildlife species that add value to our crops.
Dohack: What actions would help replenish pollinator populations?
Nabhan: Ultimately, we need entire north-south corridors of pollinator-friendly plantings to benefit a host of pollinators, not just monarch butterflies or hummingbirds. Within the next 10 years, we need to get 1.5 billion native milkweeds back into American landscapes from northern Mexico, through the Southeast, Midwest and Southern Plains in particular. To amp that up, we need Native Plant Societies and botanical gardens collecting site-specific seeds of particular milkweeds and their associated wildflowers.
Then we need to give farmers financial incentives greater than those offered by ethanol production subsidies to keep their conservation reserve lands in wild, perennial cover with diverse wildflowers and grasses that attract all kinds of wildlife. If farmers do not get involved, it’s doubtful we can save a handful of endangered bumblebees or keep monarchs off the threatened species list.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-celebrated nature writer, agrarian activist and ethnobiologist who tangibly works on conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. Nabhan has been honored as a pioneer and creative force in the “local food movement” and seed saving community by Utne Reader, Mother Earth News, New York Times, Bioneers, and Time magazine.