July 19, 2019, 9:38 pm
Native Pollinators in Peril
Written by Ryan Wenzel

Pollinators are disappearing, plain and simple. Their presence brings important ecological benefits to all of us on planet Earth, and without them our life as we know it would cease to exist. The importance of these creatures is often neglected, and negative portrayals of our most famous pollinators, the insects, are the billboard for every exterminator company in the modern world. Where are our native pollinators going, and why are they disappearing? Why are they important?

The ecological process of pollination is an essential service in nature, and is also a necessary element for productive agriculture ecosystems. Animal and insect pollinators include bees, moths, flies, bats, birds, ants, butterflies, wasps and beetles. These species visit flowers for many different reasons, including the warmth, or regulation of their body temperature, for pollen collection, and for feeding. The interaction achieved here between the pollinator and the plant provides an essential ecological process, known as pollen transfer. This important process where pollen is transferred to other flowers or different parts of the same flower is essential in prompting seed and fruit production, and ensuring the production of full-bodied fruit and fertile seed sets in many crops.

Animal and insect pollinate approximately 75 percent of the crops and flowers grown worldwide. These plants are used for a variety of services, including food, fiber, beverages, condiments, spices, and medicines. Studies have shown that more than 30 percent of our food relies on insect pollination, which is predominately provided by bees. Furthermore, the USDA estimates the annual value of crops pollinated by wild, native bees in the United States to be approximately $3 billion. In addition to the economic and agriculture services native pollinators provide us, they also assist in the execution of key ecological processes.

Native pollinators help keep plant communities healthy. They facilitate the natural reproduction of plant species, assist plants by providing food and cover for wildlife, assist in the prevention of erosion by promoting the growth and reproduction of plant communities, and keep waterways clean by preventing erosion and sedimentation, just to name a few. Flowering plants also provide nesting and cover habitat for many wildlife species, including pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and flies. In addition to assisting wildlife communities, more specifically, pollinated plants produce fruits and seeds that constitute the major part of the diet for many bird species as well as many mammals, approximately 25% according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The success of pollinators is vital in maintaining a healthy dietary relationship with primary consumers, which then benefits secondary and tertiary consumers. This interaction between pollinators and primary producers helps support biodiversity, and assist in maintaining the global food web.

There is no doubt that pollinators provide essential ecosystem services, and without their presence ecosystems would not function properly, and all the Earth’s flora and fauna would be impacted. Unfortunately, in recent years pollinators have been decreasing at unprecedented rates. Human activities such as the use of pesticides and activities that have resulted in habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation have had tremendous negative effects on pollinators.

Habitat loss for pollinators can be directly correlated to the loss of native vegetation used by pollinators for pollen transfer, forage and nesting habitat. Such habitat loss can be attributed to the creation and maintenance of roadways, increase in the number of manicured and intensely maintained lawns, and the increase of crops and non-native gardens. In addition, migratory pollinators are also facing challenges associated with habitat loss and fragmentation. In some cases habitats are becoming so fragmented that the distance between suitable habitat patches along migration routes is too great, causing mortality in some pollinator species.

The excessive or improper use of pesticides can have adverse impacts on pollinators and their habitats. Pesticides include products such as herbicides and insecticides, which are designed to prevent, destroy, repel or reduce species such as insects, rodents and other animals, weeds, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Pesticides are very commonly used in today’s society, and are found almost everywhere in our environment. Because of their composition and very nature, some pesticides pose some risk of harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or adversely affect living organisms. It is important to use these products as recommended on the chemical label, and only when necessary.

The ecological importance of pollinators and the impact of their declining numbers have prompted concern among the scientific and farming communities. Congress has recognized that pollinators are a vital part of our ecological landscape, and certain management incentives have been put into place that promote the conservation and restoration of pollinators and their habitat. The Farm Bill of 2008, also known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement a broad range of incentive-based conservation programs that can be used to create and/or improve pollinator habitat on agriculture and forest lands. The participation of the USDA’s NRCS through their Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) are of particular interest to the rural wildland and agricultural property owner.

Sabine & Waters, Inc. has been helping landowners receive assistance to implement such conservation practices. Through NRCS’s EQIP Sabine & Waters was able to acquire funding for the creation of approximately 35 acres of pollinator habitat on a privately owned plantation outside of Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Technical and financial resources have been granted to other Sabine & Waters projects in the region including restoration of native plant species, conservation cover planting, establishment of native warm season grasses, and control in invasive exotic species. To inquire about this program or other related programs contact Sabine & Waters, Inc. or your local NRCS office.

Anonymous. 2006. Native Pollinators. Natural Resource Conservation Service Fish Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet Number 34, Silver Spring, MD.
Anonymous. 2010. Pollinator Conservation. Applewood Seed Company. http://www.applewoodseed.com/pollinatior.
Berenbaum, M. 2007. Status of Pollinators in North America. National Academy of Sciences. Washington D.C.
Ellis, Susan. Photo 1. Hummingbird. Bugwood.org.
LaForest, Joseph. Photo 4. Honeybee on cucumber. University of Georgia. Bugwood.org.
Payne, Jerry A. Photo 3. Gulf fritillary. USDA Agricultural Research Service. Bugwood.org.
Rawlings, Karan A. Photo 2. Black swallowtail. University of Georgia. Bugwood.org.
Vaughn, M., and M. Skinner. 2008. Using Farm Bill Programs for Pollinator Conservation. Natural Resource Conservation Service Technical No. 78, San Francisco, CA.