I fear that we will soon have new job offerings in the United States – that of hand pollinator. The news is dire for the Monarch butterfly and our honeybees. Are these species the proverbial canary in the coal mine? China is already using hand pollination for it’s apple orchards due to a decline in honeybees as evidenced in this article from February 2012 in China Dialogue, “Decline of bees forces China’s apple farmers to pollinate by hand.”
Farming and human health depend upon the ecosystem services provided by wild organisms; worms, woodlice, millipedes and a host of other creatures which help with soil formation, forests to produce oxygen, prevent soil erosion and regulate water flow, birds to eat insect pests, flies and beetles to break down animal dung, bees and other pollinators to pollinate crops.
Modern farming threatens to eradicate these organism, and so undermine itself.
Pollination provides one of the clearest examples of how our disregard for the health of the environment threatens our own survival. About 75% of all crop species require pollination by animals of some sort, often by bees, but sometimes by flies, butterflies, birds or even bats.
Crop pollination by insects has been estimated to be worth $14.6 billion to the economy of the USA and £440 million a year to the UK. Some pollination is done by domesticated honeybees, but the bulk of pollination of most crops is done by wild insects, including many species of wild bee such as bumblebees.
In the UK, for example, recent studies suggest that about one-third of pollination is delivered by honeybees, the rest being carried out by a range of wild insects. These animals need undisturbed places to nest, and flowers to feed on when the crops are not flowering.
However, bee diversity has declined markedly in Europe, with many species disappearing from much of their former range, and some species going extinct. The UK alone has lost three species of native bumblebee, and six more are listed as endangered. Four bumblebee species have gone extinct from the whole of Europe, and there is good evidence for similar declines in North America and China.
You may be wondering how this is related to my promoting a healthy and fit lifestyle on my blog. As I have grown older (I’m now 46yrs old) and now that my body is being attacked by it’s own immune system (Sjogren’s Syndrome), nutrition has become even more important to my health, longevity and quality of life. On any given day, you can read an article about how our adulterated food supply system is negatively impacting our health directly and thought to be at the root of many autoimmune diseases along with environmental contamination by heavy metals. Well folks, it’s also indirectly impacting out health. Increased destruction of habitats for housing developments, increased production of monocrops, increased used of pesticides and herbicides, have upset the ecological balance. We are losing pollinators at an alarming rate. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
“The before-and-after photo (above) is shocking – as are the statistics. Whole Foods Market’s produce team pulled from shelves 237 of 453 products – 52 percent of the normal product mix in the department. Among the removed products were some of the most popular produce items:
– See more at: http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/news/bees#sthash.iCjhnglR.dpuf”
This may be our future.
The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and a lack of natural habitat.
In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossoms. This is clearly just possible for this high-value crop, but there are not enough humans in the world to pollinate all of our crops by hand.
And what about my beloved Monarch butterfly? It’s not just beautiful to look at, but it’s long, annual migration to Mexico has intrigued people for ages. It too is a pollinator. The news about this years winter migration to Mexico is bleak, as reported in the New York Times today. Official numbers will be published in March 2014.
ON the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.
This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.
Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.
That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.
“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”
There you go, the canary is gasping for air.
Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves, which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,” said Dr. Spivak.
Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,” and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”
We are living in our own food desert and it will only get worse if we do not act now. It is not too late!
There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down the worsening crisis in biodiversity.
I have ordered Bringing Nature Home and plan to add more native plants to support our pollinators. I have a garden full of Milkweed Plants (be careful if you have pets that might eat this). We had numerous Monarch butterflies and raised 30+ caterpillars to butterfly-hood. I even increased my number and variety of milkweed this year and sadly, did not get a single Monarch. I saw very few honeybees this year as well. It was mostly bumblebees. So order the book and let’s have a discussion about what we can do to save them and ourselves. For more info about honeybees, check out the Whole Foods’ Share the Buzz.