Has your garden gone quiet, the hum and buzz of busy pollinators a faint whisper? Do you remember summer nights driving through clouds of insects but now arrive home with a clean windshield? Do you miss the enchantment of watching the flash and glimmer of fireflies?
While we’ve been busy doing human stuff, pollinators and insects have been quietly disappearing. For years the decline went unnoticed. Insects are small, many live outdoors and often the everyday human insect interactions are annoying, ants in the kitchen, mosquitoes in the yard, yellow jackets threatening a picnic. Hard to miss something you want to avoid.
Though often overlooked, insects are the keystone of life, a pivotal connection between plants and animals. Our lives are being diminished by their decline.
A growing number of studies confirm insects are declining in abundance with a number of species in danger of extinction. Insects in general are declining but the ones commanding the most attention are pollinators, a group that includes bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, ants and flies. Pollinators in Peril, a report prepared by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2017 found that 24% of native bees are imperiled and population declines are occurring in 52% of native bee species. In Illinois, the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network has found a 30% decline in butterfly abundance since 2000.
The spotlight has been on honeybees for years. It’s THE bee that comes to mind when discussing pollinator decline, likely due to their strong connection with people. Honeybees perform essential pollinator services for several food crops, they make honey and their picture has been featured on a popular breakfast cereal box until it was replaced by a ghost-like silhouette to highlight honeybee decline.
The honeybee’s celebrity has eclipsed the contributions native bees make to a healthy eco-system. The honeybee is distinctive in several ways, setting it apart from other bees. It is social, while most bees are solitary. It has been managed for so long, it’s typical home is a hive box; most native bees build modest nests in the ground or hollow stems and twigs.
We’re familiar with adult bees, tiny creatures flying from flower to flower but the majority of a bee’s life is spent out of sight, in a nest undergoing the early stages of its life cycle. The bee’s developmental stages are the same as a butterfly’s, an egg hatching into a larva (grub form), then pupating before becoming the adult we recognize.
Many pollinators have unique skills equipping them to perform specialized tasks required for pollinating certain types of plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, blueberries and cranberries have tightly packed pollen that isn’t readily accessible and needs to be released with a good shaking. Bumblebees clasp the flower then engage their flights muscles, producing a vibration strong enough to unleash the pollen. Called buzz pollination, honeybees are not capable of this particular pollinating technique.
Some pollinators, like the squash or cucurbit bee specialize in the pollen of a particular plant or family of plants. Illinois grows the majority of pumpkins in the US, a plant that relies heavily on pollinators. Maintaining a supply of Halloween pumpkins and pumpkin pie depends on a healthy population of squash bees.
All pollinators, all insects are necessary, they’re essential ingredients of the wondrous diversity of life that sustains us.
Pollinators Need our Help
Human activity has created the conditions negatively impacting insects. The causes are known, primarily loss of habitat, widespread pesticide usage and changing weather patterns. Each one of us can be part of the solution.
World renown biologist Jane Goodall said, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.”
Helping begins with understanding. One of the best ways of understanding the natural world is to spend time in it, looking closely, listening carefully, being curious, noting changes, asking questions and finding answers. Eric Simons, an editor for Bay Nature, a science magazine based in San Francisco says,
“You can go for a walk outside and just pay attention to what’s around you.” It sounds simple, but Simons says that noticing your surroundings is the first step to noticing changes. “The natural world needs witnesses, now more than ever.”
Your garden and yard are the closest places for observing and helping pollinators. Which trees, shrubs and flowers are hosting a lively gathering of insects? Are there different types of visitors, butterflies and bees or an assortment of bees?
Gardening practices make a difference.
From plant selection to tidiness, what you do in the garden can make it more inviting to pollinators.
A tidy garden erases many nesting sites. Skipping much of fall clean up and delaying spring clean up until it’s warm enough for bees to leave the nest are ways a garden becomes habitat.
Pollinators need nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall. Plan for a succession of blooming plants, including the native species many pollinators prefer.
Caterpillars can be picky eaters, some, like monarchs only eat one type of plant, milkweed. Swallowtail caterpillars eat fennel, parsley, dill and Queen Annes lace, all of which are excellent additions to ornamental and vegetable beds. Additional host plants: http://help.monarchwatch.org/kb/article/38-larval-host-plants-by-butterfly-species
When replacing or adding trees and shrubs, keep pollinators in mind, some are more supportive of insects, like oaks, cherries and basswood.
Pesticides don’t just kill pests but beneficial insects as well. Minimize or eliminate pesticide applications in the yard and garden.
Support pesticide free agriculture by buying organic when possible.
Not a gardener? You can help by educating others, volunteering your time with local groups, donating to environmental organizations working on behalf of pollinators, and advocating for legislation protecting pollinators.