When most people think of pollinators, they likely think of the honeybee – the most established pollinator of its category group. Surprisingly, they are just one of many common pollinators here in Ontario that go unrecognized for stabilizing our ecosystem and food security. Pollinators are everywhere, and include animals such as bats, small mammals, butterflies (maybe you have heard of monarchs as pollinators), birds, beetles, moths, flies and even wasps. Pollinators are endangered, which many people do not know (or know and do not think there is anything we as humans can do anything about), which puts them at risk of extinction. With their extinction, we face issues of food insecurity, ecosystem degradation, soil erosion and a variety of other issues that directly affect the quality of life we have as humans. So exactly what do pollinators do and why are they so important? What can we do to better protect them? Let’s chat about it!
What Do They Do?
Although this is taking it back to basics, pollinators fly, jump, climb and crawl from flowering plants, drinking nectar, or feeding off pollen. As they move from plant to plant, they help with the pollination process by transporting pieces from bloom to bloom. This is an important piece of the pollination process, as pollen from male and female plants is the first step in the next generation of that plant (i.e., large blooms or produce).
Now, this process can happen without the pollinators, as some plants are self-pollinating, or some plants are planted close enough together that wind/water can help move the pollen from bloom to bloom. However, this method is not nearly as effective as the pollinator creatures moving the pollen themselves.
Why Are They So Important?
Although there are more reasons as to why pollinators are so important, I wanted to take the time to list two of the main reasons that directly impact humans and the environment. Approximately 75%-95% of plants on earth need assistance with pollination, meaning they need pollinators to thrive and grow. This is for all kinds of plants (over 180,000 plant varieties and over 1200 crops), from the blooming spring tulips to fruits and veggies that we consume every day.
Did you know that pollinators are responsible for 1 out of every 3 bites of food? This includes countless amounts of produce, as well as plant derived oils. According to the Ontario Government, the crops that pollinators help to pollinate contribute approximately $502 million to Ontario’s economy each year. Without them moving the pollen from male to female plants, farmers would not be yielding the same quantity or quality of produce that they do in a regular season. Jeopardizing this process through the endangerment of pollinators puts the whole world in a vulnerable position for food insecurity. This is certainly the most worrisome factor of pollinator decline. If this alone is not a reason enough to ensure pollinators thrive, I do not know what is!
Of course, all pollinators help all plants flourish, providing food for themselves and other insects and animals, while also providing clean air through oxygen generation for us to all breathe. Naturally, this is vital to human health. Another level to this that is not always considered, is that pollinators and insects are also a food source for other animals such as birds and amphibians. This creates a natural balance in the ecosystem, allowing all levels of the food chain to properly function.
Why Are They Endangered?
With that many plant species to pollinate, how could they possibly be endangered? Pollinators are increasingly endangered due to a variety of human derived factors, including but not limited to, urbanization, industrial agriculture, invasive plant species, misuse of chemicals/pesticides, pollution and climate change. Unfortunately, all of these factors are directly human impacted and now we as humans, need to reverse these effects to ensure pollinators can continue to thrive.
The leading causes of their endangerment are habitat loss due to urbanization, pollinator killing pesticides (neonicotinoids) that are used both in industrial agriculture and home use, as well as the ever daunting and sporadic weather patterns that we have experienced in Canada in the last 25 years as a direct result of climate change.
What You Can Do
Pollinators are essential to human survival and yet, are not usually made a priority in any environmental conversation. There are a variety of ways humans can help stimulate the pollinator population that require very minimal effort.
One of the biggest ways we as humans can help pollinators is to assist in creating their habitat. It may seem small or insignificant but just making an effort to plant native species in the spring in our gardens or decks help this. Consider planting flowers that bloom at different times of the year so that there is an adequate amount of nectar all summer long. Additionally, some pollinators only reproduce and live on specific plant species (i.e., Monarch butterflies and Milkweed), so trying to ensure you are not removing this from your garden thinking it is an actual weed, also helps. This may require some research, but you will be rewarded with beautiful butterflies and bees thriving in your garden.
Although rarely used for home use, consider forgoing the use of pesticides in your garden. These chemicals create a harsh environment for reproduction and habitat for all insect pollinators. This includes neonicotinoids pesticides and other insect killing chemicals. I know that wasps and bees can be bothersome while you are trying to enjoy your annual BBQ, but they are there for a bigger reason than to bug you.
Some smaller, but fun ways you can help the pollinators this summer are to:
- Create a bee bath using some rocks and a shallow bowl. This makes a great area for bees and butterflies to get a much-needed drink of water in the summer heat.
- Create or put up a bee house. You may have seen these at your local hardware in the last few years. They look like birdhouses, with lots of holes in them (usually made from bamboo or reeds) for bees to nest.
- Include a mulch free space in your garden for bees and other pollinators that are ground nesting.
Overall, with summer around the corner, there has never been a better time to start planning out your garden to include some native species and some special aspects for pollinators.