Eating Local column: Pollinators need protection because we need to eat |

Eating Local column: Pollinators need protection because we need to eat

Audience members came dressed as bees and flowers to meet bumblebee expert Dave Goulson.
Marilyn Gleason |

A friend in Carbondale keeps a few top-bar hives. That’s the trendy, “bee-friendly” style of beekeeping favored by the environmental crowd. Mark has helped lots of would-be beekeepers get started, and in the spring and summer he’s the guy that who gets the calls when people find a swarm in their tree or a hive living inside a wall.

“I’ve started charging them double,” he told me the other day, “when they call me to remove a bunch of wasps or a colony of bees they’ve already sprayed with insecticide.”

We were discussing the plight of the pollinators, which goes far beyond tales of Colony Collapse.

Dave Goulson, a leading authority on bumblebees and author of popular titles on the topic, crossed the pond in September from his home in England to speak at the Butterfly Pavilion in Broomfield.

“A lot of people out there think there’s just one species of pollinator — the honeybee — and that it does everything,” he told his audience, including yours truly and my honey, Ed the beekeeper. The first debate between Trump and Clinton was on the telly, but we weren’t watching.

“There are thousands of species of pollinator,” he continued. “There are bumblebees and little solitary bees of various sorts, and then there are hoverflies and butterflies and moths and beetles and so on. We shouldn’t forget about those. We shouldn’t just focus everything on the honeybee, which is actually kind of a domestic animal.”

The European honeybee, as the name implies, is not even native to these United States. Sometimes it outcompetes native pollinators.

Goulson reminded us that a third of all our food — 70 per cent of crop species — depend upon the services of pollinators. Losing those services would significantly impact the economy: $215 billion per year depends on pollinators in food crops.

We’d have precious little left to eat without creatures we often think of as nasty, stinging pests. Only wind-pollinated crops would thrive: rice, wheat and corn. Bread and porridge. “Our diets would be awful,” Goulson moaned.

“The problems with honeybee colonies dying have received a lot of the attention,” he warned, “but much less well-known is the fact that our wild pollinators — those for which we have any kind of data — are disappearing. Some have gone extinct.”

Bumblebees and native bees have been in the news. Seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees made it onto the endangered species list a month ago. It’s the first time a bee has been listed — a dubious accomplishment.

One week earlier, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the rusty patched bumblebee for listing. It used to be common in the Eastern states, Goulson explained to me, but just since 2006 its numbers have crashed. The reason for its demise is mysterious. Other Eastern species are unaffected.

Eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and other squash, cucumbers and melons are some of the plants that depend partly or wholly on bumblebees.

Three of England’s 27 species of bumblebees have died out, though they survive elsewhere. Franklin’s bumblebee, unique to Oregon and northern California, winked out forever out in 2006.

The relationship between our food and pollinators is complicated and intimate.

Goulson put the blame for an appalling extinction rate — not just bumblebees — squarely on our farming practices, which he says are “ravaging the planet” and “completely unsustainable.”

“We’ve gone down a route of farming that is basically incompatible with any other form of life,” he said. “You go into a big arable field. … It’s been drenched in pesticides, you can’t find any other plant or life. There’s no weeds. There are no insects. There is nothing. And we are covering an ever-increasing area of the surface of the planet in those huge monocultures.”

Somewhere between three and 300 species go extinct every day. Today, for example. That’s either 1,000 times or 10,000 times historic extinction rates. Wildlife populations are crashing too: Since 1970 studies estimate we’ve lost 1.5 billion birds in North America and half of all vertebrates in the world.

So, we’re in trouble. But incredibly, what we eat can have a big impact. We do have power.

And Dave Goulson believes farming needs a complete overhaul.

“Crikey, we need to stop them somehow. One thing we can do is buying choices. Buy locally produced food. Buy organic food. Don’t buy the rubbish that’s produced in those huge fields. If nobody bought it, then they’d have to stop making it that way.”

Local initiatives show promise. Bee Safe Boulder has succeeded in voluntarily banning pesticides from dozens of neighborhoods when residents sign pledges not to use them on their lawns and gardens. In Canada, Ontario prohibited pesticides for cosmetic use in 2009, five years after Toronto banned lawn chemicals.

The city’s still standing, Goulson reports. “It hasn’t been eaten by Japanese beetles or anything else. The parks still look nice.”

Famed Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson wrote,”Millions of years of co-evolution have finely tuned the relations between particular plants and their special pollinators. The shapes and colors of the flowers, their scent, their location on the stalks, the season and daily schedule of their pollen and nectar offerings, as well as other qualities we admire but seldom understand, are adjusted precisely to attract particular species of insects; and those specialists in turn, whether beetles, butterflies, bees, or some other group, are genetically adapted to respond to certain kinds of flowers.”

Nature weaves an intricate tapestry beyond our understanding.

Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University is author of “A Sting in the Tale” and “A Buzz in the Meadow.” Marilyn Gleason enjoys watching bumblebees in the sweet peas on her Peach Valley farm. Send comments to her at

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