Yes, I mean the catastrophic crash of the stock market in 1929 and the economic Great Depression that followed. As I listened to today’s stock market gains and losses on PBS’s “Marketplace,” I was struck by how closely our society follows this information. We pay attention because it affects our lives directly. The situation with pollinator decline is no less critical yet is barely on the radar of most. Since we have not hit bottom yet, it seems like a problem for another day—and there is no index to tell us how close we are.
Still, the warning bells are ringing. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, beetles, and flies are in crisis worldwide, suffering from pesticide exposure, habitat loss, and disease. Pollinators make fertilization possible for many plants; without them, food as we know it would simply not exist: no fruits, veggies, peanut butter, or chocolate—and that’s just a start.
If this suddenly sounds like the same old story you hear about humans and nature, stay with me a little longer. It’s more than another wildlife-in-crisis story, and I can guarantee that it will affect you personally—and definitely financially—if we keep the current course.
So, in the spirit of “Marketplace,” let’s do the numbers!
30% of the food we eat results from insect pollination.
This includes everything from cucumbers to squash, coffee to basil, strawberries to cantaloupes, cashews, and everything in between. It doesn’t include the insect-pollinated foods like alfalfa and clover that we feed to our livestock (where we get milk, eggs, and meat), so the percentage is likely much higher.
There is a 59% decline in overwintering monarch butterflies in the Central Mexican butterfly preserves since 2012.
75% of the Earth’s flowering plants depend on insect pollination to set seed or produce fruit.
The value of insect-pollinated crops in the US is $27 billion.
US beekeepers experienced a 30% decline of managed honeybee colony winter losses in the 2012-2013 year.
This number is far greater than the acceptable range of losses and only represents winter loss, not total loss. There are only about 2.5 million commercial honeybee colonies in the US. For perspective, it takes 1.6 million colonies to pollinate the annual almond crop alone.
THREATS TO POLLINATORS
All insects are affected by contact with insecticides. In particular, a newer class of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids has been shown to severely affect bee health. In agriculture, this type of insecticide is most often applied as a seed coating, and the insect nerve poison is subsequently expressed in every tissue as the plant grows; leaf, stem, pollen, and nectar.
As a result, though the insecticide is targeted at “pest” insects, there can be serious consequences for any insect that visits the plant for nectar or pollen. Some need only be present when the planting occurs, as some of the chemical seed coating is released in a crop “dust” in agricultural plantings. The effects of these pesticide exposures include immediate death by contact, but some are sub-lethal, meaning that the animal does not die right away but experiences disorientation, loss of navigational ability, paralysis, and even memory loss as the result of contact.
Though there are federal regulations governing the concentrations of these poisons in agriculture, there are none for home use. Many products containing this type of insecticide can be found in local home improvement stores for landscaping use. Consumers often do not follow the instructions for application, and the concentrations can be many times higher than federal regulations allow. This means more of the poison will find its way to bees and other insect pollinators through gardens and runoff from irrigation.
It is important to note that the majority of research on pesticide effects in pollinators has been conducted in honeybees, because they are managed commercially and are thus more accessible and measurable. Since their biology is very similar to that of native bees, it is safe to assume that the damaging effects they experience from pesticides (and other sources) are also suffered by native bees.
As human populations grow, less space remains for native pollinators. Overgrown spaces with wildflowers, weeds, and nesting sites are disappearing, making way for manicured lawns that eliminate key nectar and pollen sources like dandelions and encourage pesticide use. Agricultural practices claim land that was once suitable pollinator habitat with a diversity of nectar and pollen sources and replace it with insecticide and herbicide-laden monocultures.
Genetically modified (GM) crops
Two types of GM crops are routinely used in agriculture. One is an insect-resistant type, where a bacterium that is lethal to certain insects is incorporated into the genome of the plant, and the target insect species are killed upon feeding on the plant.
The second is an herbicide-resistant variety and is definitely of concern for pollinators, especially butterflies and bees. In herbicide-resistant GM crops, the plants are engineered to be resistant to applications of certain herbicides. As a result, the crop can withstand repeated applications of herbicide, which in turn kills all the flowering weeds surrounding the planted area.
This is of particular concern for monarch butterflies, whose larval host plant is milkweed, which thrives in disturbed habitats and has historically been found adjacent to crops. Most people are familiar with the epic migration of the monarch butterfly to the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico. This year, the count of overwintering monarchs in the protected reserves revealed a catastrophic drop—down an incredible 59 percent from that of 2012 and standing at an all-time historical low since the migration was discovered in the 1970s. Lack of available host plants due to GM-related herbicide application has been identified as a significant contributor to this staggering decline.
There are a great many parasites and pathogens that burden pollinators such as bees, and the ones causing the most damage are introduced species. Native bumblebees suffer from a nonnative fungal disease, while honeybees struggle with introduced ectoparasites such as Varroa mites and fungal infestations from Nosema spores.
A combination of all these and probably other factors has created the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder, which is decimating honeybee colonies in the US. The precise cause is unknown, because the bees simply disappear, thus taking the evidence with them. But one thing is clear—life is hard for commercial honeybees these days.
WE ARE HERE FOR THEM
At the San Diego Zoo, we are committed to helping pollinators recover:
Providing a safe haven
We have a pollinator “way station” at the Pollinator Garden, located at the entrance to Elephant Odyssey. This space is dedicated to helping sustain pollinators by providing a steady supply of pesticide-free nectar and host plants, as well as suitable living spaces for native bees. We have a large section of milkweed available for monarch butterflies to lay eggs on from spring through fall, helping to boost the West Coast population.
Educating our guests
Our Education Department is working with Zoo Corps kids to help raise native milkweed for monarch butterflies in our Pollinator Garden. Staff have also incorporated the garden as a teaching tool for various curricula.
Live and let live
Where possible on Zoo grounds, we allow honeybee swarms to move on in their own time and only actively remove established hives when either human or collection animal health is clearly at risk.
National Pollinator Week awareness
The Entomology Department participates every year in National Pollinator Week, with the help of many departments. During the entire week, the insect keepers are giving daily presentations on bees and other pollinators at the honeybee display in the Insect House at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 pm.
HOW ABOUT YOU?
A steady wave of small choices can help turn the tide. Here are a few ways you can help:
If you don’t currently buy any organic foods or clothing, think about picking even one item the next time you visit the store. For one, you could potentially lower the demand for crops produced using pesticides and reduce the overall application (over one MILLION pounds yearly) of these chemicals in the US. This alone will help pollinators.
Secondly, even if you don’t care about whether or not you eat GM crops, buying crops that are genetically modified supports the practice of widespread herbicide application in agriculture and the decimation of pollinator habitat that results. Organic items cannot intentionally include GM crops; those labeled “No GMO” have been positively determined not to contain them. One item in your basket is a small step in the right direction for pollinators.
Build your own way station
Plant some milkweed! Create a habitat in your yard, garden, or flowerbox that invites pollinators. Some great planting information can be found at www.xerces.org, along with more details on the status of pollinators and insect conservation in general.
Avoid pesticide use at home
If you really, truly must use pesticides, read the manufacturer’s instructions on recommended concentration, and only use it at or below that level.
Let part of your lawn go wild for pollinators
Long, overgrown grasses create a perfect habitat for nesting and overwintering native bees, and flowering weeds are a staple nectar and pollen source for bees and butterflies alike. Keep in mind that most native bees are solitary and do not sting readily. They are good, safe neighbors—especially if you have a garden.
Tell your friends
Most people have no idea that the sustainability of food as we know it is so tightly linked with the health of pollinators. Share what you know!
UNDERWRITE THE FUTURE FOR POLLINATORS
This week, June 17 through 23, is National Pollinator Week. It is the perfect time to visit the Zoo’s Pollinator Garden and spend some time watching monarch butterflies laying eggs, and bees and hummingbirds finding a nectar or pollen meal in a beautiful flower.
But it is an even better time to act. If we can all make one small change in our habits this week, we could make a big difference for pollinators. To bring it back to our financial analogy, it has been said that if more people knew the current status of pollinator decline, they would be more concerned with that than with the ups and downs of the NASDAQ or S&P 500.
So now you know the stakes—and you are definitely a stakeholder. Will you invest in the solution?
Paige Howorth is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, The Queen Will Not Be Denied!