Native Pollinators Are at Risk—Here’s How You Can Help Them

Native bees swarming Valerian plant in flower

When people talk about where our food comes from, they typically mean the hands and lands of hard-working farmers. If you are familiar with regenerative and organic practices, you probably know that growing food is a reciprocal relationship, like mycelium communicating with the roots of a tree or a sunflower facing the rising sun. But what about the critters responsible for transferring pollen, which puts food on our plates? The world as we know it wouldn't exist without our beloved pollinators.

Many of us learned to love the honey bee and monarch butterfly as children, but our adoration and curiosity were often lost when it came to other creepy crawlies. Honey bees and monarchs aren’t the only ones doing the pollinating. Many lesser-known insects are excellent pollinators and beneficial for keeping other pests at bay. While chemical solutions have become the norm in conventional agriculture and gardening, nature reveals ways to manage pests by fostering ecological relationships that work with evolution rather than against it. For example, the tomato hornworm, a big nuisance for gardeners, is parasitized and predated upon by many insects, like the parasitic wasp. If we can attract these wasps by planting their favorite flowers, we don’t need to spray the hornworms with chemicals that have known harmful downstream impacts. These wasps are pest-controlling pollinator superstars!

Before discussing how to be a pollinator ally, let’s get into why they are so important and the significant role they play here on Earth.

Pollination is Essential in Global Food Production and Fighting Food Insecurity

  • Virtually all of the world's seed plants need pollination to survive. Scientists estimate that almost 80% of the world’s flowering plants and about 35% of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to produce. Pollinator-dependent crops tend to be essential sources of income for farmers across the globe. Love figs? Thank your local fig wasp! All fig trees are pollinated by very small wasps of the family Agaonidae. Figs are technically flowers, not fruit. In order for the plant to reproduce, the flowers (on the inside) must be pollinated. Pollinating an internal flower seems complicated, but not for the fig wasp!

    Unfortunately, we are seeing a steady decline in pollinating insects. Honeybees, one of the most studied pollinators, provide a stark example. Managed honey bee colonies in the US over the past 60 years have declined from 6 million in 1947 to 3 million in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2014. 

    Pollinator facts:

    • More than 150 food crops in the U.S. depend on pollinators.

    • More than half of the world's diet of fats and oils comes from animal-pollinated plants

    • Fruits like melons, pumpkins, kiwis, and watermelons would have over a 90% yield reduction without pollinators.

    • Stone fruits like peaches, cherries, raspberries, nuts, and avocados have a high dependency on pollinators. Farmers would have a 40%-90% yield reduction without these critters.

Main Threats to Pollinators

An undeniable link exists between a changing climate, pollinators, and food security. Climate change, which shifts and changes bloom times and seasons, has delivered the most significant blow to our pollinating species, affecting crop yields and farmer success. Insects also face other threats, such as pesticide use and habitat loss from deforestation and land development.

Primary threats to pollinators:

  • Climate change

  • Toxic pesticides

  • Habitat loss / industrial development

  • Monocropping

  • Lack of biodiversity & native plants

  • Invasive plants

  • Pests and pathogens

Pollinators provide environmental benefits and are catalysts for sequestering carbon, cleaning water and soil, and are an integral part of reducing the effects of climate change. Our air, water, soil, and other life-sustaining elements depend on the survival of pollinators. The truth is, we can’t live without them! In addition to fighting against these macro-level causes of pollinator decline, there are many things that the average farmer and backyard gardener can do to provide a habitat for these important species

The Shy but Mighty Native Bee

Did you know the honey bee is not native to North America? Colonizers imported honeybees (Apis mellifera) from Europe around the mid-1600s as a source of wax and sugar. North American native bee populations began to suffer with the rise of modern agriculture, displacing them to make room for the European honey bee and monocrops.

There are about 4,000 native bee species in North America, and about 90 percent do not live with other bees in hives but choose a life of solitude, carving a nest into wood, soil, or hollow plant stems. These Indigenous bees come in as many shapes, colors, and sizes as the flowers they pollinate. They lack resemblance to the honey bee, and the majority are small, do not have queens, or produce honey. Without a hive, larvae, or food supplies to defend, many native bees rarely sting. We still don’t know a lot about these particular Indigenous bees. Any are smaller than a grain of rice, and about 10% of bees in the U.S. have yet to be named or described, but their job is just as important as any other showy pollinator!

While the honey bee is an essential pollinator for specific crops like almonds and lemons, studies show they can out-compete native bees and insects for scarce forage. Native bees are known to be primary pollinators of native crops and plants. Maybe think twice about introducing non-native honeybees to conservation areas, parks, or areas where you want to foster the conservation of native plants and native bees.

What Can We do?

Diversify your Backyard

Diversifying your garden is one step toward protecting and caring for native pollinators and beneficial insects. Consider planting perennial native flowering species, or perennial herbs, with varying bloom times and assorted flower shapes, colors, and sizes. You can even find a Pollinator Collection Tin at Sow True Seed. You can plant perennials in the fall to overwinter, so it’s never too late!

Creating a Happy Habitat

The desire for a tame and neat yard has sadly resulted in habitat loss for many pollinators and native insects. Bare ground, dead trees, brush piles, and overgrown areas are all important nesting sites for native bees. Flowering weeds and ground cover are good food sources, so skip your weekly mowing now and then. Keep an area in your yard a little wild to invite pollinators in. Alternatively, building a nest for native bees and other insects is a fun project to help these important pollinator groups. DIY instructions are online for bumble bees and wood-, cavity-, and ground-nesting bees. If you opt for buying or creating bee homes, make sure they can be taken apart for yearly cleaning and maintenance!

Host and nectar plants to consider planting:

  • Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca & A. tuberosa): Monarch butterfly, wasps

  • Echinacea + Sochan: Silvery Checkerspot butterfly

  • Bee Balm: Hummingbirds, moths, butterflies, wasps, hawk moths

  • Spicebush: Spicebush swallowtail butterfly

  • Wild Ginger: Pipevine swallowtail, bold-feathered grass moth

  • Goldenrod: Checkerspots, Nectar plant for Monarchs, Swallowtails and many other butterflies

  • Sassafras: Promethea moth and Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly

  • Passionflower: Gulf Fritillaries

  • Stinging Nettle: Red Admiral butterfly

  • Ironweed: Painted Lady butterfly, Monarch, Swallowtails

Other pollinator favorites:

No matter where you are in your growing journey, there is something beneficial you can do for our native pollinators. You don’t have to be a master gardener to let a few weeds go to flower, or pick up some native plant seeds and starts from your local nursery.


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