The familiar hum around the Santa Rosa plum and apricot trees in my grandfather’s small backyard orchard has not left my memory, although in recent years, the absence of this white noise has made me nostalgic. My Papa, as my brother and I lovingly call him, would harvest the sour cherries in the orchard and then invite us over to help him make pies. It was all possible thanks to his devotion to his grandchildren and the marvel that took place in his garden: bees.
Pollinators have been contributing to ecological systems for as long as they have been around. Planting flowers for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies in backyards, neighborhoods, and other urban areas helps this delicate ecological community thrive. Pollinators are keystone species, and without them, other species may face detrimental decline as well.
Attracting bees and butterflies into your own backyard is a beneficial and beautifully reciprocated process. Pollinators are a “good indication of a healthy environment,” Richard Houseman, associate professor of entomology at the University of Missouri explained. By providing a wide variety of plants, pollinators have access to a healthier, fuller diet. This helps boost their immune system and gives them more nutrition to choose from.
It is important to support pollinators because they are responsible for about one third of the foods humans eat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce.”
Almonds, pears, pumpkins, plums, alfalfa, and radishes are some of the many crops that rely heavily on bees for pollination.
In June 2013, Whole Foods Market partnered with The Xerces Society to show customers in Providence, Rhode Island, the importance of pollinators. They removed items from their produce section – 52 percent to be exact – that were reliant on pollinators. If Whole Foods had removed all items with ingredients sharing a relationship with pollinators, the shelves would have been much more bare.
Humans have become codependent with pollinators for survival, but unfortunately are behind some of the reasons that populations are in decline.
In recent years, the scientific community has come to accept the fact that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a threat to honeybee populations. Theories on why this is happening have been made, but there has not yet been a true consensus. Pesticide and insecticide use, habitat loss, the Varroa mite along with other parasites, and climate change are among the causes scientists turn to the most.
Houseman has been studying and speaking about urban and medical entomology as a state urban entomology extension specialist for 15 years. In regards to CCD, Houseman explained that the main cause scientists are looking at is the picornavirus transmitted by the Varroa mite.
“Cells can’t produce proteins,” Houseman said, explaining how the virus attacks the ribosomes of the honeybee cells, thus stopping protein synthesis. The honeybee’s immune system “becomes unable to defend itself.” The picornavirus has been correlated to the AIDS virus found in humans.
This is why excessive pesticide and insecticide use is harmful to pollinators – honeybees especially. Honeybees, when affected by the picornavirus are, “subject to all kinds of diseases,” Houseman said. Pesticides and insecticides deteriorate the health and immune system even further and can eventually affect the rest of the hive, which is most likely being riddled with the picornavirus already.
Although most pesticides and insecticides are used in large-scale agricultural settings, it is also a good idea to use them responsibly in your own garden. There are organic, safer options that gardeners may choose from as well as cheaper home remedies. If using pesticides is the option you choose, make sure to use sprays instead of dusts and, “treat when the plant isn’t flowering,” Houseman advises. Otherwise, the pesticides and insecticides may be the “kiss of death” for friendly pollinators.
Pollinators are attracted to plants such as lavender, rosemary, bee balm, cosmos, sunflowers, milkweed, and other wildflowers. Full lists of different categories of plants can be found on the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website.
“There are an estimated 115,000 – 125,000 beekeepers in the United States,” according to the National Honey Board. This number is small in comparison to the entire populace. Although the United States has beekeepers caring for honeybees, it is not enough for keepers alone to advocate for the overall health of pollinators. Sometimes, it’s a matter of putting on a pair of gardening gloves in order to watch the environment around you flourish.