Agricultural scientists agree that at least 30 percent of our food production results from the actions of pollinating insects and birds. But populations of these very necessary bugs are declining rapidly.
For the first time in 2017, a bumblebee has been added to the Endangered Species list. The rusty patched bumblebee, once abundant in 28 states across the northeast, midwest and southeastern Canada according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has experienced a population decline of 87 percent since the 1990s.
“The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators — including the monarch butterfly — experiencing serious declines across the country,” Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said in a press release concerning the movement to protect the bees.
Causes of the decline in rusty patched bumble bee populations are believed to be loss of habitat; disease and parasites; use of pesticides that directly or indirectly kill the bees; climate change, which can affect the availability of the flowers they depend on; and extremely small population size. It is most likely a combination of these factors, the FWS release explains.
“Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand,” Melius said.
Many plants, including food-producing plants, require pollinators to flourish — and vice versa. Researchers at the Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources note on their webpage that “Most crops grown for their fruits (including vegetables such as squash, cucumber, tomato and eggplant), nuts, seeds, fiber (such as cotton), and hay (alfalfa grown to feed livestock), require pollination by insects. Pollinating insects also play a critical role in maintaining natural plant communities and ensuring production of seeds in most flowering plants.”
While there are also seven species of Hawaiian Yellow-faced bees protected by the Endangered Species Act, bees as a class are not. The rusty patched bumblebee is the first for the lower 48.
The population decline of bees and other pollinating insects is occurring right here in Maryland, where the rusty patched bumblebee was once abundant. Here are ways you can bring pollinating insects back to your own backyard:
• Say no to pesticides — This not only brings back pollinators, but is also better for the environment as well. Chemicals in soils eventually make their way to local water sources. Other predatory insects, like ladybugs, preying mantises and spiders, will keep pests in check.
• Consider less lawn — Replace part of your lawn with flowering plants and bushes as natural habitat for pollinating bugs. Pollinators need pollen.
• Test your soil — Find out what kind of soil you have to determine best planting practices when you landscape. Soil testing can be conducted through the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Extension. For more information, go to www.umes.edu/sans/extension.html.
• Build homes for bees — Find out what type of bees are native to your region and create space for those bees to live. For instance, some bees are solitary, burrowing bees and require uncultivated ground for nesting.
• Plant for the full season — Flowers blossom at different times of the year. Virginia bluebells bloom during the spring, while milkweed makes an appearance in the summer and evening primrose blossoms in the fall. Plant your garden to include flowers that blossom at different times throughout the growing season.
• Use native plants — Native plants are important for landscaping any outdoor area. You can find out what plants, shrubs, trees, flowers and herbs are local to your environment on the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/nativesmd/info.htm.
• Create a bee bath — Like birds, bees love to have a freshwater supply. Add twigs and pebbles to a shallow container and make sure to keep freshwater in it to encourage bees to return.