What are pollinators?
Pollinators are any type of critter that pollinates plants. Bees are by far the most well-known pollinators, however there are many types of animals that provide this service. Butterflies and moths, some beetles, flies, and wasps are also important pollinators. Hummingbirds and some bats too, not to mention some mosquitos, ants, lizards, and mammals depending on what part of the world you are in. Pollination is the simple act of transferring pollen from the male part of the plant to the female part of the plant. Simply put, it is the reproduction of flowering plants. Pollinators visit flowering plants to drink nectar or eat pollen, and the pollination that occurs from their visit is a side effect of this symbiotic relationship.
The Role of Pollinators
Over 80% of the flowering plants on Earth depend on pollinators for reproduction. These certainly include flowers in the garden, but more importantly include the flowering plants that are native to the surrounding ecosystem, as well as agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables, seeds and industrial materials such as oils and fibers. On the whole, about 1/3 of the food that we eat depends on pollinators. Pollinators also play a critical role in the local food web. The plants that they pollinate provide fruit and seeds for other animals to eat, and the pollinators themselves are an important nutritional resource for other animals. For example, the caterpillars of moths and butterflies are critical food sources for almost all North American birds. For these reasons, pollinators are often referred to as keystone species. This means that their roles in the local ecosystem are so critical, that it would be fundamentally different without them.
Challenges Facing Pollinators
Pollinators are in decline in many parts of the world, and this is primarily driven by human activity. Destruction and fragmentation of pollinator habitat through land development has put a great deal of pressure on various pollinator species. Traditional landscaping practices such as maintaining turf grass lawns and ornamental (often non-native) plants have greatly reduced the biodiversity of plants available to pollinators as nutritional sources. Also, the widespread use of pesticides in landscapes and agriculture have put tremendous pressure on pollinator populations, and along with herbicides and fungicides which are also being applied to pollinator habitat are forming toxic cocktails with potentially synergistic effects.
How you can help
There are some very simple ways that anyone can help stop the decline of pollinators.
Plant pollinator friendly plants that are native to your region
Encourage your neighbors to do the same. The greater diversity of native, pollinator friendly plants available to your local pollinators, the better off they will be. These should include both floral resources for pollinator nutrition (nectar and pollen sources) and host plants meaning plants that some pollinators need to lay eggs such as milkweed and native grasses.
Provide nesting sites
Nesting sites for native bees in North America include brush piles, bare (un-mulched) earth, pithy stems, tree snags, and even manmade bee houses. While traditional landscaping practices tend to leave every square inch of garden soil smothered with wood mulch, or clearing away fallen branches or dead wood from our trees, and raking and bagging up the leaves every fall, these practices actually have a detrimental impact on the local ecology and pollinator habitat.
Maintain a pesticide free landscape
Pesticides, which includes herbicides and fungicides, are directly or indirectly harmful to pollinators. While many pesticides are toxic to pollinators, herbicides will often kill flowering plants in the landscape that would otherwise provide nectar and pollen (floral resources). Furthermore, adding fungicides to the landscape along with other pesticides can create a toxic synergy that is more harmful than the sum of these different types of pesticides.
Support local, organic agriculture
Organic agricultural practices tend to reduce many of the pressures on pollinators that traditional industrialized agriculture creates. Organic farms often provide a greater diversity of floral resources and greatly reduced applications of synthetic pesticides.
Reach out to others
Unfortunately, the plight facing pollinators today is not widely understood. Help friends, neighbors, and loved ones be more conscious of their impact on local pollinators. Also, encourage lawmakers and other elected officials to take action to reverse the decline of pollinators.