Imagine a world in which your sources of food steadily disappear: first the food co-op, then the big-box grocers, then the food stands at the farmers’ market, then the seed sources that help you to grow your own vegetables. You start scouring your neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods for fruit trees, thinking that you can supplement your ever-diminishing food sources from them, and you discover that they have all been replaced by what urban foresters call street trees: male trees that do not produce fruit—only pollen. What, you wonder with growing panic, are we going to live on?
This is the plight of imported and native bees and other pollinators right now. The forbs, shrubs, and trees they depend upon for food are being supplanted by ones that humans grow for decorative purposes.
Bee (meaning honeybee) colony collapse is linked to the stress experienced by colonies that are trucked around the countryside from one distant orchard to another, sometimes from state to state. Not that long ago, apiarists could leave their bees in place all year, knowing that during the clement months, bees could scavenge from a variety of food sources that bloomed successively. Now that so many thousands of farm acres in central Minnesota are paved over or produce lawns but few foods for bees, the animals are unable to feed themselves before or after the brief flowering of monoculture orchards. And that’s just the plight of the honeybees, which are cossetted and fretted over because of their importance as commercial producers.
Pity our poor native bees even more. These mostly ground-dwelling, inconspicuous bees (most of us are aware only of the bumblebee) are far more intimately tied to native plants, which increasingly survive only in the verges that parallel county roads, train tracks, and alongside streams.
To these extraordinary losses of habitat add the pesticides that are sprayed on farm and suburban plots and those that are sprayed to control mosquitoes in our rapidly warming part of the country (where West Nile, Lassa, and other tropical viruses can now thrive), and it’s miraculous that native and honeybees still survive at all.
Happily, the U of M’s Bee Lab is receiving a much-needed update in facilities and programming to help the bees and those of us concerned about their plight, thanks in part to Mississippi Market’s donations from shoppers bringing their own grocery bags this month. We can provide bees with the plants they need to feed themselves, and while small patches of forage are not the same thing as the vast foraging areas that are needed to restore them—and us—to health, they are a start.
Bees are not the only pollinators, of course: worldwide, there are about 200,000 species of animal that pollinate flowering plants: wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, thrips, hummingbirds, bats, opossums, lemurs, and many others. And like the bees, most of their habitats are profoundly threatened by human incursions into the forests, savannahs, and marshlands where they make their livings.
If you want to learn more about habitat changes, their effects on the pollinators who make so much of our food chain possible, and how you can work to slow or reverse these changes in your own backyard, here are two terrific books to read:
Stephen Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, The Forgotten Pollinators (Island Press, 1996)
Sarah Bonnett Stein, Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
And take a look at our events and resources all about pollinators this month!