Other Environmental Themes

In Defense of Pollinators

A campaign to save pollinators represents a departure for the conservation movement. We've traditionally been asked to rally behind large, highprofile animals like dolphins and condors, not lowly midges and hawkmoths. Some species have "charisma," and the lesser longnosed bat clearly is not one of them. Save for the monarch butterfly, few insects have champions in the environmental community. Insects suffer from a bias that affects invertebrates at large: according to a recent analysis in the journal Science, invertebrates make up 80 percent of the species on Earth, yet warrant just 11 percent of the studies in the conservation literature. Vertebrates, especially mammals and birds, are overrepresented, with 3 percent of the total species receiving almost 70 percent of the articles.

"Public support for charismatic species, such as eagles and pandas, could have trickle-down benefits for less charismatic species," J. Allan Clark and Robert May write in Science. "However, it is difficult to imagine how we can save all the parts without knowing anything about the vast majority of those parts."

This is certainly true when it comes to pollination: Of the 100,000 participating animals, only a handful are remotely familiar to the public. The problem is even more complicated because success in this case depends on preserving relationships between plants and animals that have evolved over millions of years, not just preserving individual species. These relationships are responsible for much of the food we eat, while also providing a foundation upon which ecosystems are built.

Effective strategies must focus on preserving the habitat that supports countless numbers of plants and animals. To protect migratory pollinators, the geographic challenge becomes even greater, as we need to safeguard critical resources and waystations along migratory corridors that span thousands of miles.

After taking pollination for granted for so long, it's hard to regard it as a benefit that may not persist without fundamental changes in our practices. Far from being academic, this issue is about as mundane as it gets. Putting food on the table is, of course, a basic human preoccupation, but in the process we have to be sure to let nature do its job too.