Why Does It Matter?

Black swallowtail (Papilio indra ssp. minori) | Photo: Jenna Stanek

Blog post by Dana Ecelberger

In our last blog post, we talked about how important it is to change our thinking from traditional ways of landscaping to landscaping that supports pollinators. In this blog post we will talk about why it is important that we do so, sooner than later.

It hasn’t been that long ago that European settlers came to North America, bringing with them as much of their life, from whatever country they were emigrating from, as possible. As they moved across the landscape on horseback, in wagons and on foot, they carried with them seeds and plants from their homes: roses, fruit trees, herbs, perennials. They also, accidentally, brought with them weedy plants in forage for their livestock. Although not all introduced species are invasive, many of the more vigorous among them – like Velvet Grass, European thistles, Toadflax and Knapweeds in NM – have aggressively established in vast swaths of native prairies and wild areas, displacing the natural flora and degrading those habitats and ecosystems. These introduced species thrive in disturbed and degraded soils. Overgrazing, roads, railroad lines, houses and other development upset the balance in what had been stable landscapes for thousands, if not millions, of years. The settlers had no idea of the damage they were causing. The sheer abundance and richness of these lands seemed inexhaustible. We know better now. Most of our landscapes are so fragmented and degraded they can no longer support the native plant and animal communities that once thrived here.

Why does this really matter, you might ask. If we don’t believe that preserving the natural landscapes of our planet is, in and of itself, a good thing, then we should ask what the consequences are of losing them.

Biodiverse landscapes (the richness of species variety and complexity) are more resilient, and can persist through change and crisis. The more species diversity we have in any area and globally, the more likely that area will remain viable and strong in the face of a changing climate and all that comes with that. The native species of an area have co-evolved through millennia and are adapted to a wide variation in weather fluctuations. In the case of plants and pollinators, many of our native species have evolved together and rely on one another for survival. “New Mexico lists 235 plant species as rare and imperiled, with 103 species that are considered globally imperiled, and 109 species that occur only in New Mexico.” A research collaboration between BLM and Olivia Messinger Carrill has shown a direct relationship between several of these rare plants and native pollinators. While the non-native European and/or Asian honeybees do pollinate many plants (especially European and Asian plants in the landscape and agriculture), they often are not found on the smaller flowered plants because they are either too large to access the pollen or not interested in the leaner resources of those plants. Without the native pollinators, those plants will soon be extinct, and vice versa since the pollinators rely on those plants for their pollen and nectar resources. Recent research out of Colorado has shown that native pollinators will often use non-native species of plants, but as those plants dominate the landscape we begin to lose the rich diversity of pollen and nectar necessary to support the diversity of pollinators. Emerging research is beginning to show that the resources of non-natives, such as dandelions, may lack nutrients necessary to the overall health and fitness of the native pollinators.

We know, also, that many of these plants have medicinal properties we are just beginning to understand. Some are ancient relatives of modern, hybridized food crops that are beginning to suffer in a rapidly changing climate. They may hold genetics to increase the durability of these weaker crops, thereby insuring food security in the future. Over 85% of all fruiting and flowering plants have to be pollinated by insects (primarily bees) in order to successfully produce the foods and fibers we rely upon, and the seeds that birds rely on and which insure the survival of that plant into the future. Many of the native plant species, especially bunch grasses, have deep root systems that hold the soil together in heavy rain events and sequester carbon deep in the soil.

Loss of the insects themselves creates a cascade of impacts. Fish, birds and other animals rely upon local insects for food. For example, a single pair of breeding chickadees has to find between 6,000 and 9,000 insects caterpillars to raise a brood of chicks. Birds also rely on the seeds produced by plants that were pollinated by insects.

Remember the mass die-off of migrating birds we experienced in 2020?  Researchers have discovered that many of the birds had zero body fat. Essentially, they starved to death. Researchers also found that the migratory birds that were insectivores (their diet consists solely of insects) were most likely to have zero body fat. A lot of this was due to climate change and fires precipitating a migration that was earlier than normal, followed by an cold weather front that brought extreme cold temperatures. But, a lot of it had to do with the loss of food along the stopover points on the migration route. Birds rely on insects and seeds for food.

And, those insects are disappearing at alarming rates all over the world. While it might appear that their numbers are inexhaustible, as you swat away a swarm of mosquitos this summer, keep in mind that settlers once thought the bison and salmon were inexhaustible. Both now have such low population numbers that they are being reintroduced into the wild in some locations. Nearly 32.5 trillion insects are killed each year by cars. On top of that, over 1 billion pounds of pesticide are used in the U.S. each year, and approximately 5.6 billion pounds globally. Non-target pesticides are not discriminate in what insects they kill. They will kill any insect that comes in contact with the poison. A bird or fish that eats that insect will also be poisoned. A pollinator going in to do its job of pollinating sweet corn will die from the pesticides applied to that corn plant to deter an unwanted insect. U.S. homeowners apply about 80 million pounds of insecticide each year to keep their manicured, perfect landscapes…well, perfect. The majority of homeowners don’t read the label when applying pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. This can mean overapplication, drift (the chemical dispersing far and wide in the air and water), and contamination of ground and storm waters. The health risks of these chemicals are now pretty well understood and it is no good for humans, animals and insects.

Our traditional ways of interacting with our gardens and landscapes is increasingly unsustainable. Potable water is rapidly diminishing in many parts of the country, especially in our high deserts, and we can no longer justify using clean water to keep non-native landscapes alive. Chemical applications of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide are not only costly but have been proven to poison everything they touch, including humans, birds, fish and other animals. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers applied to lawns where they play. The insects that are critical to our very survival are dying at alarming rates, all over the world. Researchers in 2022 updated the existing estimate of 10% of insect decline to closer to 30% of global insect populations that are threatened with extinction.

The good news is that conservation efforts make a huge difference. In areas where lakes and rivers have been cleaned up and restoration efforts undertaken to improve habitat, insect populations are increasing. Efforts like Bee City USA are increasing the number of native plants and connectivity of habitats that support pollinators, especially in urban areas where insects face some of the harshest challenges. Creating buffer zones between areas where insecticides are used and busy highways, planting natural habitats in municipal areas, backyard pollinator gardens and incorporation of native plantings in existing landscapes increases the number of pollinator resources available across the country. A deliberate reduction or elimination of the use of pesticides, subtle shifts in landscape maintenance like leaving leaves and stems and reducing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers while increasing connectivity of habitat by planting many small and large natural areas close to one another, all of these shifts in thinking and doing have big, positive impacts on our pollinators. The health of pollinators is critical to the overall health of our ecosystems, which ultimately impacts human health and sustainability.

Pollinator conservation can happen in big actions like converting acreage of Parks & Recreation land over to pollinator habitat, but it can also be as small as planting some pots of native pollinator plants on your apartment balcony. You get to choose what works for you. There are plenty of European horticulturally popular plants that will support our generalist pollinators like bumble bees. Lavender, Russian Sage, other sages, and asters are all plants that honeybees and bumblebees will both use. But, if you want to support our specialist native bees, then you want to start incorporating locally native species like Cleome serrulata (Rocky Mountain Bee Plant), Ratibida columnifera (Mexican Hats), any of our local Penstemons and Milkweeds, among many others. Our native flora is rich and diverse; there is sure to be a plant for everyone and every garden. Talking to others about the plight of pollinators and how we can each help is a great way of giving our native bees, flies, butterflies and other pollinating insects a hand.

Together we can make a difference!

For more information, follow any of the links in this blog post. Visit the Pollinator Resource Center on our website, and check out Xerces.org for lots of great information.

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