Meet the Pollinators
The Importance of Pollinators
Pollinators are incredibly valuable to the environment and society. They provide ecosystem services that extend into humanity's way of life. Pollinators provide two main invaluable services that cannot be underestimated.
First, they allow many plant species to complete their life history strategy. A life history strategy is an organism's way of living and it includes growth, reproduction and the organisms survivorship. Many plants require pollinators for pollination which can lead to fertilization. Fertilization is essential for many plants evolutionary fitness. 80% of the world’s flowering plants require pollinators to reproduce. The fruits and seeds that result from the fertilization, via pollination, of plants provides humanity with food, beverages, fibers, fuel, medicine and more.
Pollinators in the US help to produce 40 billion dollars worth of products and goods. A majority of crops grown in North America rely on the bees to pollinate them. Without these pollinators around, there will be lower crop yields and, consequently, higher food prices for consumers. Understanding the implications of a life without pollinators clearly exhibits their importance in the ecosystem. Without pollinators, terrestrial life would be vastly different.
Pollinators, especially bees, are keystone species which means that the ecosystem relies so heavily on them and their function that without them the whole ecosystem would collapse. As mentioned before, 80% of flowering plants world wide need pollinators and those plants rely on them, but other organisms rely on the products of pollination. Essentially, without pollination, all the plants that rely on pollinators would go extinct along with the many animal, insect and fungi species that feed primarily or exclusively on a plants that need to pollinated.
Why are Pollinators Disappearing?
Pollinators are disappearing for a few main reasons and almost all of those reasons are due to human activity. Human contributions include habitat loss, pesticide use, parasites, pathogens and climate change.
As urbanization expands across the world, there is less habitat for the pollinators to forage in and less options for food sources. Urbanization also fragments the landscape making it more difficult for pollinators to share gene pools. It also increases the distance the pollinators have to travel to find a suitable food source.
Humans use pesticides for everything from mass produced crops to suburban land and garden care. These pesticides are incredibly dangerous to pollinators. Although it might not be the intent to kill the pollinators, the chemicals used in these products are toxic and are a contributor to the pollinator decline.
As climate change continues, rising temperatures can have effects on the pollinators’ natural range, as well as changes in the food source phenology. Some species are not adapted to the temperature change and face hardships because of it.
Pathogens are also a big threat to the bee population. The pathogen Paenibacillus larvae is responsible for causing American Foulbrood (AFB). AFB is a bacterial disease that targets the larvae and the nourishment they consume. The food given to the larvae is contaminated by the spores of the Paenibacillus larvae and is ingested by the larvae. The larvae then dies and bacteria releases millions more spores. The pathogen is not only dangerous to one colony but also other colonies within flight distance. Healthy colonies will sometimes come and rob the infected hive of its food stores that are infected. This effectively transfers the bacteria, and restarts the cycle.
Parasitic mites are also a problem for bee colonies. The Varroa destructor is commonly known as Varroa mites and they work by affecting the bee’s development and, in turn, the longevity of the colony. The female mite lays eggs on the the developing pupa and when the bee emerges they are often deformed, have lower body weights, impaired development, and deformed wings. All of these factors not only affect the individual bee, but also the hive as whole. These health issues within males make it difficult for the queen to receive quality sperm and to produce healthy individuals. These said individuals are crucial for the continuation of the colony.
Although parasitic mites and bacteria diseases are terrible for bee populations they are both treatable. With the right training and knowledge base beekeepers are able to rid the hive of these intruders.
The other major reason why bees are disappearing is because of Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD, which occurs when nearly all of the worker bees in a colony disappear. At this time, researchers don’t have a definitive explanation for why CCD occurs, but they think it might be a combination of some of the other factors that cause bees to disappear. Pollinators are so important to the ecosystem and society. Knowing what causes their populations to decline is a start to figuring out how to protect them.
Historic Background of Honey Bees in the United States
Honey bees came to North America in the 1600’s by means of European settlers much like they came with livestock and other crops in tote. These bees brought from Europe, are unlike many of the other biotic introductions. Most of the time when a new plant, animal or insect is brought to a new place outside its natural range, it can become invasive. However, bees are not. Bees have only helped North American terrestrial plant species flourish, making farming infinitely more productive.
Modern apiculture, or bee keeping, began in 1862 by L. L. Langstroth, a minister in Philadelphia who changed the design of the hives so that they could be manipulated easier and be used to better serve people. This led to the modernization and commercial beekeeping we know and rely on today.
Honey bees were thriving in North America until the 1980’s when Varroa mites wiped out whole colonies. However, the pollinator crisis did not start to be noticed until the 2000’s when the general populous realized that beekeepers in North America had lost 45% of their colonies. Since 1947, the honey bee population has more than halved in North America.
These decreases in bee population is not unique to North America. As global concern escalates scientist, farmers and beekeepers are all working together with concerned citizens to reverse these detrimental trends.
Latest Pollinator News
Get the buzz on pollinator news and upcoming events.
Audubon naturalists lead teams into the field to identify and record butterfly sightings. No experience is needed. This event is part of the North American Butterfly Association's annual survey of butterflies.
Come celebrate pollinators June 19th - 25th and help spread the word about how to protect them.
There is an increasing buzz about pollinators these days. But it’s not that sound in your garden as bees go about their business. Learn about what Audubon is doing to help our blossom-loving friends, what you can do at home and in your community and all about how you can celebrate National Pollinator Week with us!
Audubon Environmental Education Center
Visit Rhode Island's largest nature center and aquarium!