Written by Lee Schneider
Climate change is a giant problem to solve, so it comes as a surprise that some of our planet’s smallest inhabitants, bees, bats, and butterflies, can help us understand climate change and perhaps do the right thing by the planet.
Those are just a few of the surprising lessons of Protecting Pollinators: How to Save the Creatures That Feed Our World, an accessible and inspiring book by Jodi Helmer. It was published in April by Island Press.
As Helmer writes, “Pollinators need plants for nectar and pollen; plants need pollinators to set fruit and reproduce. These partnerships have evolved over millions of years and the timing is precise: pollinating insects mature at the exact time nectar flow begins.”
If you have been on a hike in the past few years (hopefully you’ve been on more than one) you may have noticed that the bee population has diminished, or you may have read about bees being in trouble. Bees are pollinators who sustain our food supply. Helmer writes that “almost 90 percent of flowering plants and 75 percent of food crops depend on pollinators; the volume of pollinator-dependent food crops has increased 300 percent over the past five decades, making the global food supply more reliant on birds and bees (and other pollinators) than ever.”
It follows, therefore, if the bees are in trouble, so are we. As more land is taken over by large-scale farming, there are fewer flowers and fewer viable habitats for pollinators. Use of pesticides has pushed out pollinators. Climate change has caused snow to melt earlier, leading flowers to bloom sooner, changing the migration habits of pollinators.
Helmer chronicles the results of all these unwelcome changes. Two species of bumblebees are already listed on the endangered species list. They are struggling to move to regions with cooler temperatures. Bats (also pollinators) seem to be moving further north, seeking more favorable temperatures for the species. They may adapt, or not. Researchers don’t know yet.
Climate change could be fatal for honeybees. Changes in temperature disrupt their reproduction patterns, killing off eggs. Hummingbirds have reduced access to nectar because of climate change. Monarch butterflies are also under threat. Milkweed is the only food source that monarch caterpillars consume. The species cannot survive without milkweed. As Helmer reports, “Commercial scale agriculture … contributed to a 21 percent decline in the number of milkweed plants between 1995 and 2013.”
That all sounds like bad news. But before I succumbed to worry, I kept reading. Helmer reports, a surprise to me, that habitats in cities are doing okay. She cites research that says there are healthy bee populations in San Francisco and New York City. There’s a lot of urban pollination going on.
Everyday citizens are doing their part. Across the country, homeowners are transforming their backyards to pollinator-friendly areas, providing sustenance for bees and butterflies. There are educational efforts coming from Big Ag and chemical companies, I suppose as a moral counterweight to all the chemicals they help farmers put into the soil. Still, I won’t complain about education. Kids need to know where their food is coming from, and how butterflies and bees play a role. You, too, can get a pollinator habitat going — Helmer will tell you how in the book, suggesting organizations you can contact.
Citizen scientists are making important contributions tracking bees and butterflies. Some of them provided the data that showed the sharp decline in the monarch butterfly population. It fascinated me to learn that citizen science, although it hasn’t always been called that, has a rich history. Henry David Thoreau collected records of flower growth and bird migrations. Data collection goes on today, with everyday citizens keeping records of the butterflies in their backyard. These efforts give scientists historical information “about long-term environmental changes and about how they’re affecting migration patterns, flowering dates, pollinator populations, and more.” Without citizen scientists, Helmer writes, “the data sets would be too limited for biologists to seek out trends.”
Aside from the pollinators themselves, citizen scientists are the real heroes of the book. It’s inspiring that everyday people like you and me are acting as stewards of nature, watching and listening and recording data for scientists to analyze.
The sounds these citizen scientists record are subtle: the buzz of a bee, the startling motor of hummingbird wings. But it’s time we all listened more closely to these subtle signals from nature or, soon enough, we will not hear them at all.