To help raise awareness about the declining populations of many pollinating species, in 2017 the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to establish National Pollinator Week. Because pollinators are crucial not only to our human food supply but to the health of all life on the planet, there is good reason to care about them: our lives are intertwined with theirs. This year National Pollinator Week is from June 20 to June 26.
A pollinator is any insect or animal that unintentionally, through its movements, carries pollen or the male reproductive part of plants to the female parts of plants, a process that facilitates the reproduction of over 85% of flowering plants. It has been estimated that more than two thirds of the world’s crops depend on pollinators, and the seeds and fruits produced by pollinators comprise a major part of the diet of many other animals. Perhaps surprisingly, bats, birds, small mammals and lizards can be pollinators, but most pollinators are insects. While the honeybee (introduced to the U.S. from Europe, and therefore non-native) typically comes to mind, in fact a diverse crew of butterflies, moths, wasps, ants, beetles and flies, and a dazzling array of wild bees, does most of the work of pollination. In fact, wild bees are primarily responsible for the pollination of the most agricultural crops, whether or not managed (as opposed to wild) honeybees are present. A diversity of wild pollinators has been shown to result in improved crop yields (Garibaldi et al in Science, February 2013). Unfortunately, many species of wild insect pollinators are becoming scarce because of habitat loss, pesticide use, introduced diseases, and climate change (of course, managed honeybees aren’t faring very well either).
The Xerces Society is an organization dedicated to working on behalf of these important native insects. Established in 1971, the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation was named for the Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces), a butterfly of the sand dunes of San Francisco driven to extinction by land development in the 1940s. Based in Portland, Oregon, the Xerces Society creates science-based programs and educational resources to facilitate protection of rare and endangered invertebrates and pollinating insects. While its focus is global, it currently has initiatives operating within California including the California Bumble Bee Atlas and Bumble Bee Watch, and the Western Monarch Milkweed mapper and Thanksgiving Monarch Butterfly Count. These initiatives utilize community members (citizen scientists) to help collect scientific data, an entertaining and educational way to be involved in insect conservation at the ground level. You don’t need any previous experience to join this team: the Xerces scientists provide the necessary training webinars to get you started.
Helping to conserve pollinators will benefit your own backyard garden and, ultimately, the planet. The Xerces Society website contains a wealth of information to aid you in getting started. Broad measures you should take include the following: planting flowers and native plants used by pollinators for food; providing safe nesting habitat for wild bees on your property; reducing or eliminating your use of pesticides; and spreading awareness about the need for pollinator conservation. The website offers specific information on how to accomplish these goals and numerous resources to aid your efforts at https://www.xerces.org.
Perhaps most useful to gardeners are the regionally specific habitat establishment and maintenance guidelines; the lists of native plant and seed vendors; and the monarch and pollinator habitat kits that can be requested for habitat improvement on public lands such as city and school properties. If your public land project meets their criteria, you will receive seedlings appropriate for your location and habitat and detailed instructions for making your habitat project a success; all you need to supply is the labor.
The Xerces Society also hosts regional events and webinars; a Bee Better Certification Program that provides incentives to conservation-minded farmers and points consumers towards food grown with pollinator-friendly practices; and a beautiful pollinator habitat sign to grace your garden (available as a gift to donors). For more ideas on how you can improve your garden for pollinators and celebrate National Pollinator Week, visit Pollinator.org.
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension system, serving our community in a variety of ways, including 4-H, farm advisers, and nutrition and physical activity programs.