Need Pollinators? Time for Plan B

Plant it, and they will come: A bee fly on a cinquefoil blossom.
Plant it, and they will come: A bee fly on a cinquefoil blossom. (By David Inouye)

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 21, 2007

Three seasons after moving to a house with a yard, Mara Shreck is trying her hand at a modest vegetable garden this summer. In her small plot in the Chevy Chase area of Washington, the 33-year-old trade association lawyer is tending cucumber plants, zucchini, tomatoes and a bunch of herbs.

The squash and cukes, part of the great cucurbit family, are beginning to produce their bold orange-yellow blossoms. This should be a moment of joyful anticipation, but this year hopes are coupled with fears. "Now that they're flowering, they need to be pollinated, but I haven't seen any bees," she said. "I'm concerned."

Disappearing bees -- honeybees -- have worried those who understand their importance, but the garden is also full of other pollinators. We can also thank a mob of other industrious helpers: other bees, large and small; familiar and obscure butterflies; even nectar-guzzling bats. Sadly, many of these are facing tough times as well.

Pollination is one of those givens in nature: Plants and pollinators forged a partnership millions of years ago that is so efficient and seamless it continues largely unnoticed by most humans, creatures notoriously fixated by their own drive for cross-pollination. In the garden, the flower entices an insect or other animal to snack on pollen and nectar in exchange for moving extra pollen to another bloom or plant for fertilization. The bee makes honey, the plant sets seed.

This equation has been disrupted in recent months as beekeepers report a strange and unsettling phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Honeybees leave the hive, but they don't return. Millions of stacked boxes, which should be home to billions of bees, have fallen empty and silent. Publicity about this has engendered a genuine alarm by people who don't normally think about the logistics of food production. About a third of our crops rely on pollinators. For agriculture, that almost entirely means honeybees, an amenable, prolific and efficient insect that lends itself to human management.

As scientists seek to figure out why honeybees, brought here centuries ago by colonists, are missing in action, Laurie Davies Adams wants us to spare a thought for the other pollinators out there. Their ranks include a wide array of native bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, skippers, beetles, hummingbirds and bats.

From San Francisco, Adams directs the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, established in 1999 after a symposium at the National Zoo.

Working in a loose partnership with environmental organizations, scientists, public and corporate land managers and agricultural and horticultural groups, among others, the campaign has succeeded in getting Congress to establish June 24 to June 30 as the first National Pollinator Week.

Adams's group sees home gardeners like Shreck, who are concerned about pollinator decline, as vital helpers in the protection of pollinators. The campaign's Web site, http://www.pollinator.org, offers specific tips on encouraging and protecting them.

One strategy is to plant colorful and long-flowering perennials and annuals, and to group them in masses. Among the flowers in my garden that seem to draw all kinds of insect pollinators are goldenrods; any composite, including coneflowers, sunflowers and asters; the eupatoriums, including joe-pye weed, and lots of the stellar annuals now around, including improved strains of petunias and impatiens.

I'm not a huge fan of zinnias or marigolds, but they are pollinator magnets, too. Plants that are members of the carrot family produce domed flowers called umbels that seem to draw a lot of small pollinating bees and other insects. That group would include dill and angelica as well as parsley allowed to bloom. This year, I let some overwintering parsnips go to flower, and their resulting yellow umbels have drawn a lot of interesting little bees, ants and ladybird beetles.

The second important way home gardeners affect pollinators is in their use, or nonuse, of pesticides. Many products are highly toxic to bees, and if you must use them, do so in the correct concentrations and at a time of day when pollinators are not on the wing. Be careful about overspray and windy conditions, especially if your drift may harm your neighbor's garden. If you have a lawn and yard service, educate yourself about the company's sprays, methods and employee training.

A bill in the Senate would use existing farm bill conservation programs to encourage farmers and ranchers to establish and conserve habitat for pollinators, and the U.S. Postal Service will launch four stamps on June 29 marking Pollinator Week, featuring a Southern dog-faced butterfly, Morrison's bumblebees, a lesser long-nosed bat and a calliope hummingbird.

Last fall, a National Academy of Sciences study concluded that many of these pollinators were in decline but that more data were needed to establish the extent of the problem. It also urged better protection for native bees against introduced pests and diseases, and measures to encourage the greater cultivation of bumblebees and other pollinators.

The study came out in October, about the same time as the first reports of CCD in honeybee hives. Adams said the honeybee losses are "a very clear wake-up call" that we need pollinators, that they are under threat and that we need to stay connected to the green world and its health.

"It's a very important connection we can't afford to lose, and we will lose it if we get paved over, sealed in and glued to whatever [electronic] screen" we watch, she said.

Shreck says she has seen a couple of honeybees and a bumblebee, and has harvested one small cucumber so far this season.

"I'm feeling a little bit better, but I would like it if there were swarms of bees pollinating my cucumbers," she said. "I'm just concerned about the whole environmental implications."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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