- Faith Miller
Pollinators aren’t doing so well. Scientists have had a difficult time pinning down exactly why, but survey data collected from beekeepers shows dramatic losses over the last several years.
Between April 2018 and April 2019, beekeepers in the United States lost 40.7 percent of their honeybee colonies, according to the University of Maryland-based Bee Informed Partnership. The data lines up similarly with annual average losses over the past decade or so.
Lethal parasites, called Varroa mites, represent one key reason bees are dying. Scientists say more research is needed to determine how weather patterns and climate change could also be killing off pollinators.
Without pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, insects and bats, notes the United States Forest Service, “the human race and all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive.” Almost 80 percent of crops grown around the world for food and industrial products require pollination. Flowering plants that require pollination to reproduce also make the air cleaner, help to purify water and prevent soil erosion.
What can we do to protect pollinators? Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, says the enduring Western concept of a well-manicured lawn can work against our fluttering friends.
“It’s just this approach to gardening where the landscape is so sanitized,” Shepherd says. “...Front yards consist of a square of perfect green lawn ... and maybe a few ornamental evergreen shrubs. And then maybe an ornamental rock or two. And those are — they’re attractive, they don’t have weed problems — but they also just offer nothing, really for bees or ever any wildlife.”
What’s more, local ordinances that ban natural vegetation over a certain height are “kind of outlawing wildlife gardening,” Shepherd says.
“There must be a way to craft some kind of ordinance that recognizes there’s a difference between an intentional, tended wildflower meadow and kind of a problematic weed patch,” he muses.
Xerces’ policy research pertaining to bees has so far focused on pesticide use, another factor that Shepherd says can have an outsize impact on pollinator health. Neonicotinoids, a range of systemic pesticides, have been shown to be particularly harmful to bees when they’re sprayed near trees on city-owned streets, he says.
Shepherd advises that in order to make your yard pollinator-friendly, avoid using pesticides and foster hardy, low-growing flowers such as Dutch clover that will survive when you mow your lawn. A greater diversity of flowers and plants will provide better habitat for bees and butterflies: “It’s almost like you just need to get more chaos into the area, and then you’ll just be creating more places where the wildlife can live,” Shepherd says.
Beyond your backyard, some municipalities, states and government agencies are working to preserve pollinator habitat. Manitou Springs, for example, aims in its latest vision plan to “promote green management” of city parks and creeks by using organic methods of pest control.
The state Department of Transportation also designated a stretch of Interstate 76 as the “Colorado Pollinator Highway” and reduced mowing of natural vegetation along the road to conserve a habitat for bees and butterflies. It’s looking at other locations to implement similar practices.