Our History: Declining pollinators depend on public lands
U.S. Forest Service Forest Ecologist
The Post Independent this year is celebrating local institutions’ anniversaries — including our own — with a special feature many Sundays through the year. The PI traces its roots back 127 years, but 125 as a daily, while the White River National Forest looks back on 125 years and Colorado Mountain College marks 50 years. Today, the White River National Forest looks at a historical change in critical pollinator populations.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “pollinator?” You probably think of honey bees. But did you know there are more than 100,000 species that work as pollinators worldwide? Most of these are insects like bumblebees, butterflies, moths and beetles.
However, more than 1,000 vertebrate species act as pollinators as well – including bats, birds, and even lizards, lemurs, and possums. In the U.S., many of our native pollinators depend on Forest Service and other public land to survive.
Pollinators are essential to our lives. About one-third of foods depend on pollinators, such as peaches, apples, almonds and tomatoes. In the U.S., these inconspicuous species are responsible for at least $15 billion of agricultural products each year. Without them, production of many crops would no longer be possible.
These species are also essential to plant and animal life. Many plants require a pollinator to reproduce, and some plants are so specialized in their requirements that only one species can pollinate them. Many pollinators depend on one plant – the monarch butterfly cannot survive without milkweed.
There were roughly 6 million honeybees in the 1940s but only 2.5 million today. In 2008, 60 percent of U.S. hives were lost; losses have been about 30-40 percent annually in years since. Bee losses have been attributed to variety of compounding stresses, such as mites and other parasites, pesticides, stress and disease spread caused by transportation, and loss of floral resources.
Bumblebees and other native species have not escaped the population bust. About 50 bumblebee species are native to North America, and they are excellent pollinators of wild plants and crops. Keeping native pollinator populations healthy can provide a back-up for agriculture if honeybee colonies fail. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to protect the first bee under the Endangered Species Act – the rusty patched bumblebee that is native to eastern North America. The Western bumblebee, once common in Colorado, is under consideration for protection.
Pollinators have been disappearing because of habitat loss, pesticides, and other stressors. Habitat loss includes development of land, industrialization of agriculture, and loss of native plant diversity due to invasive weeds. Neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides present in many home garden products, also play a role. Finally, as weather variation increases, mismatches between when flowers bloom and when pollinators need them is a growing problem.
June 19-25 is National Pollinator Week.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Senate unanimously declared that the third week in June as National Pollinator Week to help promote education about and conservation of these important insects and animals. Earlier this month, Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence; and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue showcased a bee hive installed at the vice president’s residence and reaffirmed the national commitment to pollinator conservation.
Pollinator Health Strategy
The National Pollinator Health Strategy was set up to ensure we do not continue to lose pollinators and the essential benefits they provide. Because federal lands provide habitat and intact native ecosystems for a wide variety of pollinators, we have a huge opportunity to help these species. The Forest Service set a goal of improving 300,000 acres nationwide for bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinators in 2016 and 2017.
To improve habitat for bees, butterflies, and other species recommendations for federal land management include revegetating roadsides and restoring land with native flowering plants, reducing mowing of roadsides, and treating non-native weeds to maintain native plant communities. On the White River National Forest, we planted over 2,300 native flowering plants on reclaimed mine sites in 2016 year to improve pollinator habitat.
What you can do
• Plant for pollinators. Add flowering native plants to your garden to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and more. Check out the “Low Water Native Plants for Colorado Gardens” series by the Colorado Native Plant Society at http://www.conps.org/gardening-with-native-plants/ .
• Reduce mowing and soil disturbance. Many pollinators nest in wood, soil cavities, and even dead plant stems. By allowing these materials to remain undisturbed you give pollinators a place to live – and you can cut back on your yard work guilt-free.
• Think carefully about pesticide use. Pesticides are a useful tool, but often used at higher concentrations than necessary. Check online to see if products you use contain neonicotinoids.
• Report bumblebee sightings at BumblebeeWatch.org. If you see a bumblebee, take a photo and post it to the site. Your photo will be verified by a bumblebee expert and used to improve bumblebee conservation.
• June 19: Build a Pollinator Garden Workshop hosted by the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. 9 a.m.; free; register online.
• June 21: Deer Hill Wildflower Walk hosted by Roaring Fork Conservancy. 5:30 p.m.; free; register online.