Protecting Pollinators: How to Save the Creatures That Feed Our World

review by Sanne Kure-Jensen

protecting pollinatorsIncreasing media attention has focused on shrinking insect and pollinator populations. In this thoroughly researched book, Jody Helmer describes our dangerous situation and recent efforts to restore pollinator populations. The author quotes numerous research studies describing issues facing pollinators, successes and challenges of habitat restoration for native (wild) bee and pollinator populations as well as the dangers of inactivity. The book’s final chapter focuses on citizen science opportunities to collect valuable data. Helmers table called “Twenty-Nine Ways You Can Help Pollinators” offers a checklist for helping pollinators in residential yards, on city balconies or community gardens with pollinator-friendly plantings.

Helmer said thankfully, “farmers, gardeners, businesses, non-profits and eaters alike are stepping up to save the creatures that feed our world, planting habitats filled with native species, avoiding chemicals, participating in citizen science projects and spreading the word that pollinators are in trouble and we need to take action to save them.”

Iconic honeybees and monarch butterflies represent threatened pollinators. Insects with less WOW-appeal like hoverflies or hawkmoths are often ignored in pollinator discussions. Children and adults rarely engage with plain insects lacking colorful anatomies or enchanting stories of long migratory journeys.

The impact of declining pollinator populations is enormous. “Worldwide 200,000 different species tackle the task of pollination: vertebrates such as birds, bats and small mammals make up a small percentage of the global pollinator population, while invertebrates such as flies, butterflies, beetles, moths, and, of course, bees make up the rest,“ according to Helmer.

Pollination contributes $557 billion to global food production each year. In the past five years, the volume of pollinator-dependent fruit, seed and nut crops have tripled to about 150 crops in the United States. Helmer wrote, “Almost 90 percent of flowering plants and 75 percent of food crops depend on pollinators.” Non-honeybee flower visits account for half of pollination.

North America has over 4,000 species of native bees. A 2017 study by the Center for Biological Diversity revealed one in four pollinator species studied risk extinction while half those studied have declining populations.

If fewer fruits, seeds and nuts are pollinated, humans will not suffer alone. Herbivores like deer and wild turkeys and whole ecosystems will decline.

Dangers to Pollinators

Helmer writes “Scientists site global warming as ‘one of the greatest anthropogenic disturbance factors imposed on ecosystems.’”

Day length or temperature drive plant growth stages as well as insect and animal mating, egg-laying and migration. When climate change brings earlier spring temperature changes, plants may emerge or bloom earlier. Their pollinator hatch or migration may be out of synch. Early spring blooms mean increased risk of frost harming blooms, insects and other pollinators causing reduced fruit yields, pollinator volume and ecosystem health.

“You may think that climate change would have positive effect because of longer seasons, but it really means there are more days in a season where there aren’t enough flowers for the bees,” said Jane Ogilvie at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

Moving honeybees around for pollination services stresses bees and spreads diseases to wild bee populations. Working monoculture blooms or non-diverse areas weakens bees’ immune systems; they are less able to resist parasites and diseases.

While the number of beekeepers is rapidly increasing nationally, up to 70% of new beekeepers fail or quit within two years. Novice beekeepers may inadvertently allow diseases and pests to spread to otherwise healthy hives or wild populations.

Migration patterns are changing in many species. Some birds leave winter habitats earlier, make more stops along the way and face increased competition. Populations at southern ranges may move to higher elevation for cooler temperatures. Northern range dwellers may not move north leading to greater resource competition.

Other species have already stopped migrating. Some Texas bats risk a loss of genetic diversity by not breeding with other bats along migration routes.

Climate change is expected to accelerate the spread of invasive plants. They sprout and bloom earlier, shade out natives and can utilize extra soil nitrogen as climate changes. “Species that reproduce quickly and have a lot of genetic diversity tend to be the most resilient to changing climate,” explained Helmer.

Noxious weeds and invasive plants displace natives, may create monoculture and lower plant and pollinator diversity. Shallow rooted invasive plants increase erosion risks. Invasive vines shade forest soils causing tree and understory decline and can bring fire into forest canopies.
Bowing to chemical company lobbyists, American political leaders continue to allow widespread use of harmful agricultural chemicals while offering a token effort to help pollinators.

Introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids are a family of systemic insecticides that protect crops from root- and sap-feeding damage from aphids and grubs. Neonics are now applied to more than 140 crops in 120 countries including 80-95% of corn and about 50% of soybeans.

These systemic toxins linger in plants and soils for weeks. Toxin levels high enough to kill honeybees have been found in pollen and nectar up to ten weeks after spraying plants with neonics. Crop insurance requires farmers to use treated, coated seed as a management tool even though independent research shows seed treatments with neonics offer little protection from pests but pose risks to soil and ground water.

Even small, non-lethal neonic doses have been shown to impair bumblebee learning, their sense of direction and communication with fellow bees. Research found queens’ ovaries damaged and/or queen deaths.

A study of nearly 750 hives confirmed honeybees brought back up to 118 different chemicals — herbicides, miticides, insecticides and fungicides — which they picked up on their rounds.
Researchers found high concentrations of neonics in insect-eating birds who visited treated flowers and consumed dosed insects. Bio-accumulators like bats weakened and became vulnerable to disease after eating tainted insects.

Since 2016, there is a growing threat to pollinators posed by Monsanto’s crops resistant to Round-up and Dicamba. According to “Menace to Monarchs,” a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, Dicamba will be used on 60 million acres of mid-west monarch habitat in 2019 and another 9 million acres may be affected by Dicamba drift.

Helmer urged growers to use more Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices:

  • Spray only when critical threat levels are reached
  • Spot treat rather than spray everything
  • Rotate crops
  • Shift sowing dates
  • Use non-chemical approaches like biocontrol first

Since 2015 captive butterfly breeding and mass releases have been reported to spread disease to wild populations. A common pathogen affecting monarch butterflies causes shorter wings, smaller females, fewer offspring and fewer monarchs arriving at wintering sites.
Helmer writes, “Honeybees are not the only pollinators in need of sanctuary. Butterflies, bats, birds, and many other species can’t make their homes in cornfields or between the blades of grass in suburban lawns; the habitats taking over our landscapes are inadequate for species to nest, rest and feed, leaving pollinators struggling—and often failing—to adapt to shrinking habitats.”

Efforts to Help

“Agriculture is one of the major pressure points on pollinator health, so we need to engage farmers to be part of the solution,” said Eric Lee-Mader of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate

Under the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) farmers are paid annual rent to convert eco-sensitive land into grassland and pollinator habitat instead of cash crops.

Healthy pollinator habitat can function as crop insurance. When planted in a ratio of 1 acre of habitat to 25 acres of cropland, farmers can find better yields and quality, especially around fruit crops requiring pollination (from native bees). Especially important to organic farmers, pollinator habitat attracts and shelters beneficial insects for pest control.

University of Michigan research found establishing pollinator habitat cost $400 to $800 per acre. With increased blueberry yields, payback was less than four years.

University of Texas at Austin research found increased diversity of natural pollinator habitat and native pollinators within 800 feet of cotton fields led to18 percent higher cotton yields.

The “Tequila Interchange Project” formed in 2010 to encourage sustainable agave production benefiting threatened long-nosed bat populations. By allowing at least five percent of agave fields to bloom, bats found nectar and populations rebounded off the Mexican endangered species list. To support their projects, look for “Bat Friendly” tequilas.

Many public libraries have seed libraries with pollinator-friendly seeds.

Since 2016, nearly 75 percent of garden center retailers have committed to phasing out neonic use. Bee-friendly labels command a premium. Typical retail landscape plants are typically treated with neonics at 220 times stronger doses than agricultural plants. By 2021, Ortho will stop offering neonics in homeowner products.

In 2015, 50 households began the North Carolina Butterfly Highway program. (Bee Highway or Pollinator Highway weren’t catchy enough names.) By 2017 the program began replacing park landscaping with monarch and pollinator-friendly plants. Now 17,000 interconnected habitat patches in parks, government building landscapes, community centers, residential yards, and apartment complexes help pollinators (not just butterflies) thrive.

A recent Charlotte City ordinance requires 50 percent of new landscaping plants (trees, shrubs and ground cover) to be native plants to benefit local pollinators.


For maximum pollinator density and biodiversity, fragmented pollinator strips or patches need to be at least 30 square meters and have at least 6 different plant types. Smaller sites are still helpful with connectivity to other habitat sites.

Habitat restoration is expensive and often requires financial backing or incentives. USDA programs help farmers restore monarch and pollinator habitat. Bayer gave away Feed a Bee wildflower seeds. General Mills established habitat on its partner farms. They found hedgerows teaming with native bees and butterflies to be good for business.

Native plants restore ecosystems, reduce erosion, improve water quality, use less water, and are better adapted to local conditions, animals and insects. Long-lived species store more carbon. Diverse native plantings are resilient and support pollinators and other wildlife all season long.

Increasing development destroys pollinator habitat; Helmer reminds readers we should all restore habitat in our yards, gardens and containers as well as in public spaces. Fancy gardens are not needed, pollinators only need nectar, pollen, water and sites for mating, nesting and undisturbed overwintering.

Growing native plants will be “far more effective than beekeeping,” said Lee-Mader. Helmer agreed, urging readers to create habitat with a wildflower or pollinator-friendly garden. This will be more satisfying, offer better results over traditional gardens and offer lessons on the natural world.

Helmer’s book included a helpful checklist, bibliography and research studies. The Xerces Society website (www.xerces.org) offers regional native plant lists.