What’s the buzz about pollinators?
Within the past month, Walmart stores in Pendleton and Hermiston, Ore. joined 16 other Walmart stores in opening pollinator gardens on their store grounds.
It’s a small step that, multiplied across backyards and public spaces across the country, could make a big impact on the survival of the native insects that are such a critical part of our northwest ecosystems.
The issues facing native pollinators are daunting. While some species are able to thrive on food from many plants, others are highly specialized and depend on just a few plant species. In other cases, specific plants provide cover to hide from predators or preferred breeding grounds that a dependent insect species needs.
When those plants are replaced, by crops or invasive weeds, parking lots, or buildings, small patches of remaining habitat – and the insect populations they sustain – can get isolated from others of their kind. And while some of these smaller plant and insect colonies eventually adapt to these changes, others dwindle and eventually die off.
That’s a problem, because ecosystems are interdependent.
As the number and types of of pollinators decline, plants that rely on them may also decline – including plants that rely directly on the specialized pollinators that have adapted to thrive with them, and plants that simply rely on large numbers of pollinators generally to maintain a healthy degree of cross-pollination across a geographical area.
Specific pollinators or the plants that rely on them may also be an important food source for specific bird and animal species.
Improper use of pesticides is another threat to our pollinators.
While pesticides are an important and necessary part of protecting agricultural crops, and even native plants and trees from infestations by aggressive or invasive insect species, it’s important for users to follow application guidelines.
Applying too much product, watering too soon after pesticide applications, or applying pesticides under the wrong conditions can create residue, runoff, or drift, potentially causing harm to beneficial organisms well beyond the intended treatment area.
It’s not just highly-specialized species that are struggling. Honeybee populations have declined drastically in recent decades, in part due to a syndrome called “colony collapse disorder.”
Scientists are still studying what is causing hives to fail in such large numbers, but believe a range of cumulative stressors, which could include fungal infection, infestations by parasitic mites, habitat loss that requires bees to fly further to collect sufficient food for their hive, pesticide exposure, ultimately results in stressed, unhealthy bee colonies that can’t sustain sufficient numbers to stay warm and fed through the winter.
The Monarch butterfly, which the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife website calls “one of America’s most recognizable species in North America,” is being considered for Endangered Species Act protection.
The migratory butterfly’s numbers have plummeted during the past two decades, likely due in part to overall habitat loss and fragmentation, and especially from reduced numbers of the milkweed plants it relies on, particularly when breeding.
Many communities are joining the effort to protect pollinators by removing invasives and planting native species in parks and other public spaces, and even utility rights-of-way! You can research milkweed species that are native to your area at http://www.xerces.org/milkweed/.
Individuals can also help native northwest pollinators, and the plants and animals that depend on them, survive and thrive.
Flower beds and border gardens planted with of native plant species can be beautiful and beneficial to pollinators! Many pollinators are especially attracted to showy flowers, their favored source of food. Here in the Pacific Northwest, many of our native plants are highly ornamental. Even a small container garden, planted with native flowering plants, can creating a safe place for insects to stop, rest, and feed while travelling between larger areas of habitat. You can read more about how to build such a garden at https://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/PollinatorGarden.html.
Gardeners and professional growers can also help protect pollinators by using caution when planning for use of herbicides and insecticides (both organic and synthetic can impact beneficial insects or plants that they rely on).
For more information, visit: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/pollinate/
For links to USDA research re: pollinators, visit: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/economic-and-policy-analysis/natural-resources-analysis/pollinators/index
* Special thanks to Ron Kikel, visitor information assistant and conservation educator on the Mt. Hood National Forest, for providing the close-up photos below of some pollinators he’s recently encountered in and around Oregon. Thanks also to Chamise Kramer, Public Affairs Specialist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, for the informative and shareable graphics.