National Academies Offer Sustainable Solutions to Restore and Protect Critical Species
By Sydney O’Shaughnessy
Pollinators including insects, birds, bats, and other animals are essential to agriculture and natural ecosystems throughout North America. About three-quarters of all flowering plant species rely on pollinators for reproduction, including important fruit, vegetable, and seed crops as well as other crops that provide fiber, medicine, and fuel. While the economic and agricultural value of pollinators is clear, these species also help to maintain the healthy functioning of a wide range of natural ecosystems. However, pollinator populations have been rapidly declining in recent years, and if this trend continues, it could put U.S. economic, agricultural, and environmental systems at risk.
The National Academies have worked for decades to develop sustainable solutions to halt pollinator decline. National Pollinator Week was designated as the third week in June by the U.S. Senate.
Why are pollinator populations declining?
The reasons vary depending on whether the pollinator is considered a wild or managed species. Wild pollinators are animals and insects native to a particular area that aid in pollination for both crops and other plants. Managed pollinators, such as imported, nonnative honeybees, are considered commercial livestock. Managed pollinators typically have larger populations than their wild counterparts, and aid in the pollination of over 90 commercially grown crops.
Beehives in Chico, California, almond orchard to aid in the pollination of the trees in bloom. Beekeepers provide bees for pollination throughout California, which contributes over 80% to the worldwide almond market.
Wild pollinators are declining because of spillover of pathogens, like parasites, bacteria, and viruses, from nearby managed populations. Excessive pesticide use, climate change, resource competition with managed pollinators, and habitat degradation and loss from human development also contribute to wild pollinator decline. Habitat degradation is especially detrimental for some wild bats, bees, and butterflies.
Despite the agricultural industry’s propping up of managed pollinators, these populations are also experiencing declines. In addition to the loss of habitat and excessive pesticide use, parasitic mites are causing managed honeybee colonies to collapse.
What is being done to conserve and restore pollinator species and communities?
Pollinator conservation and restoration solutions come from many different sources. For example, a 16-volume National Academies series examines ways transportation agencies can make a meaningful difference in pollinator habitat. The series says that state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) can manage roadside vegetation with pollinator needs and habitat in mind. By using native plant materials, for instance, DOTs can establish diverse plant communities along roadways, minimize mowing and pesticide use, provide water sources, and create pollinator habitat corridors, which is a pathway that offers contiguous habitat and forage.
In addition, a recent report on the nation’s native seed supply says that insufficient supply of these seeds is a major barrier to ecological restoration and other revegetation projects across the United States. The report calls for concerted action to build a more robust native seed supply and industry, so that habitat restoration can be beneficial to both wild and managed pollinator populations, especially in the face of climate change.
What can you do to help pollinators?
There are many individual actions that can be taken to help restore local pollinator populations. Get involved by:
- Building native bee houses
- Planting pollinator-friendly gardens
- Attending native plant sales
- Advocating for responsible or pesticide-free practices
- Spreading awareness on social media
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