Other Environmental Themes

The Unheralded Pollinators

The population of honeybees in the United States dropped by about 25 percent in the 1990s—a statistic that might not seem alarming until one considers that honeybees are the chief pollinators for commercial farms and home gardens. Crops dependent on bees of all types for pollination are worth roughly $10 billion per year in the United States alone.

The demise of honeybees highlights an even bigger problem: the threat to a broad array of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, birds, bats and other animals that plants depend on for reproduction. More than 100,000 animal species provide pollination services, and about one third of the food eaten throughout the world comes from plants pollinated by wild creatures. These animals help perpetuate not only our croplands, but our gardens, forests, pastures and meadows. The populations of hundreds of pollinators are dwindling. As these creatures become scarce, the plants that rely on them may suffer as well.

The decline of pollinators due to pesticide use, pollution, the loss of native plant habitat and the fragmentation of wilderness areas can have a ripple effect through an ecosystem. As pollinators disappear, along with the plants they once sustained, animals that feed on the pollinators or plants may starve. Animals that feed on these animals, in turn, may also become endangered. Ultimately, an entire ecosystem could be jeopardized by the loss of a tiny pollinator most humans knew nothing about.

Farmers in the American West, for example, did not suspect that wild alkali bees—remarkably efficient pollinators—were responsible for the productivity of their alfalfa fields, until the fields were sprayed with chemical pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s that killed the native bees and unintentionally hurt crop yields. Nor did those responsible for spraying conifer forests in New Brunswick, Canada in 1969 realize they would kill bees that pollinated nearby blueberry plants, leading to a 75 percent blueberry crop loss in the following year.

Ecologists are nowhere close to documenting all the functions performed by animal pollinators, but one point is clear: if we continue to wipe out these creatures as a result of our ignorance or recklessness, yields of some food crops will inevitably diminish. People might then appreciate the services offered by pollinators-unsung heroes of the natural world.