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National Pollinator Week 2020

Pollinator Crisis

Bumbebee on Penstemon. (Photograph by VR Schmalhofer)

Insects - the "little things that run the world"1 - play a vital role in a variety of ecosystem processes, including herbivory, detritrivory, nutrient cycling, and pollination, as well as serving as food for insectivorous animals such as birds, lizards, and spiders.


Pollination is probably the most obvious and most widely recognized of the ecosystem services provided by insects.  Three-quarters of food crops are pollinated by animals2, and while commercial pollination relies heavily on one insect - the domesticated honeybee, Apis mellifera - wild insects, birds, and bats also play important roles.  Tomatos, for example, require "buzz pollination" to produce fruit - and buzz pollination is accomplished by bumblebees.  As honeybee numbers have declined due to various causes (varoa mites, colony collapse disorder, etc.) the importance of wild pollinators to crop production has increased.  Additionally, an estimated 80% of wild plants depend on insects for pollination.3


But insects are in crisis.

If you recall bees and butterflies being much more plentiful in years past, your memory is not deceiving you.


Recent studies have shown that terrestrial insect abundance4 and biomass5 has declined dramatically in recent decades.  Continued loss of insect pollinators will have far reaching impacts on agriculture, as well as on the structure of the natural world6 as animals that depend directly or indirectly on insects for food (think of insectivorous and frugivorous birds, respectively) are affected.   


National Pollinator Week - occurring June 22-28 this year - was designed to draw attention to the importance of pollinators and the perils they face.  It is a time to reflect on actions that can be taken to avert impending catastrophe.  Land use changes, habitat loss, increased use of pesticides and herbicides, loss of wild "set asides" at the margins of agricultural fields, increased presence of invasive species (both plants and animals), and climate change have all contributed to pollinator declines. 


Restoration of habitat for wild pollinators is critical to enabling popluations to rebound. Pollinator-positive action can include planting a pollinator garden - don't forget to include food plants for both adult pollinators and their offspring! - as well as providing suitable nesting sites (such as sandy soil for burrowing or wood blocks for tunneling). When multiplied by hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals, seemingly small individual actions collectively become quite large and have strong impacts.


So bee kind to our pollinator friends - especially if you like ketchup with those fries!  Both tomato and potato plants depend on bumblebees . . . . .  




1. Wilson EO. 1987. The little things that run the world (the importance and conservation of invertebrates). Conservation Biology 1:344-346.

2. Ingram M, Nabhan G, Buchmann S. 1996. Our forgotten pollinators: protecting the birds and the bees. Global Pesticide Campaigner 6: 1-12. 

3. Ollerton J, Winfree R, Tarrant S. 2011. How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Oikos 120: 321-326.

4. Van Klink R, Bowler DE, Gongalsky KB, Swengel AB, Gentile A, Chase JM. 2020. Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundance. Science 368: 417-420.

5. Hallmann CA et al. 2917. More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809.

6. Lister BC, Garcia A. 2018. Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 115: E10397-E10406.

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