Wildlife & Nature

Push to Protect Pollinators Starts at Home

Native plants and native insects are the foundation of a vibrant ecosystem. The system and the ecological services it provides are breaking down.

An eastern bumblebee, one of southern New England’s most common bumblebees, dines on orange milkweed. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Pollinators, especially bees, play a significant role in maintaining the function and diversity of ecosystems through their unique relationship with native flowering plants. But the ongoing degradation of native pollination systems, coupled with the continued loss of insect biodiversity, pose a significant threat to human health and well-being, and to the world’s future.

As the late biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson once said about these vital invertebrates: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Like Wilson, Robert Gegear, assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, also appreciates the importance of insects. Eight years ago he launched the Beecology Project to learn more about the ecology of native pollinators — the initial focus was on bees, specifically bumblebees — to better understand why some species are doing so poorly while others are thriving, or at least holding steady.

Gegear said certain pollinators are heading toward extinction, such as the rusty patched bumblebee, while others are increasing in numbers, such as the eastern bumblebee.

Overall, though, the news is bleak. Gegear noted there are 52 butterfly species in New England that are in decline.

“Wild pollinators have declined in abundance, diversity, and geographic distribution at an alarming rate over recent years,” according to the opening paragraph on the Beecology Project website. “These declines pose a significant threat to ecosystem health and biodiversity.”

Total insect mass is decreasing by 2.5 percent annually, according to a 2019 study. It points to troubles ahead. Insects are both pollinators and a food source for amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, and some humans.

More than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, with butterflies and moths among the worst hit, according to the 2019 peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the journal Biological Conservation. The study noted that intensive agriculture is the main driver of insect decline, particularly the overuse of pesticides. Development and the climate crisis only serve to accelerate their demise.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the study’s authors wrote. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

One of the problems, among the many, is a lack of information that would allow for the development of effective conservation and restoration strategies for threatened species. How to recreate landscapes, destroyed by relentless building and poisoned by chemicals, that truly support pollinator biodiversity is a complex issue that goes beyond observing insects buzzing for nectar around flowers.

Gegear’s work with the Beecology Project is attempting to fill this knowledge gap, in part by recruiting citizen scientists from across southern New England to digitally collect and submit ecological data on native pollinator species.

In ecology, Gegear said, it is about diversity — not how many individuals there are but how many species there are — because each species has a connection with a flowering plant that has a connection to other species.

Native bees, for instance, have vastly different flower preferences than honeybees, which were imported from Europe.

“The survival of native pollinators has a positive cascading effect on so many other species, both the wild plants they pollinate and the other wildlife using those plants for food, shelter and nest sites,” he told ecoRI News in 2020 in a story with the headline Plight of Pollinators Isn’t Limited to Honeybee Collapse. “Collectively, those relationships are increasing ecosystem health. But as we start to remove pollinators, we start to affect all these other species.”

For example, as species of bumblebees that were once common in southern New England fade, such the yellow-banded bumblebee, the yellow bumblebee, the half-black bumblebee, and the aforementioned rusty patched bumblebee, the impact doesn’t end with their disappearance. The plants they bonded with over centuries also are impacted.

“Some native plants are in decline as well,” Gegear said. “Some of the bees in decline are some of the best pollinators of these plants. We need to rebuild systems.”

Cardinal flower and sweet pepperbush.
Cardinal flower, right, and Joe-pye weed, left, are native to the East Coast and attract native insects. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Through foraging and natural movements, pollinators, such as bees, beetles and butterflies, transfer pollen, allowing the fertilization and subsequent fruiting of trees and plants.

Of all flowering plants, 85 percent require an animal — mostly insects, but also vertebrates such as birds and bats — to transfer pollen. Pollinators also account for the fertilization of some 35 percent of crop production worldwide, with a value of nearly $220 billion annually.

The part of the pollinator/plant/animal biodiversity decline that goes largely unnoticed, however, is the impact on ecosystem services. Interactions between native species, which have co-evolved for millenniums, support the sequestration of carbon, soil decomposition, and water purification. Their significance goes way beyond food production.

“We are getting these services for free, but because of a massive reduction in biodiversity we are losing these services,” said Gegear, whose work focuses on restoring the functional role of pollinators and studying animal-flower interactions. “Once we lose this stuff, we’re not getting it back. We cannot replicate these services and systems.”

While many home gardeners want to help support pollinator biodiversity, Gegear noted data are still being gathered to inform them on what they should be planting, especially when it comes to attracting bumblebees. The Beecology Project has already provided some answers.

Using eight years of live surveys, observations and other research techniques — much of it obtained on a 40-acre parcel of conserved land in Southborough and at Gegear’s outside laboratory in Dartmouth — the UMass professor and his team have created a list of native plants that support local bumblebee species at risk, as well as other bee species and butterflies. (The list is for Massachusetts, but Gegear said it can also be mostly applied to Rhode Island and Connecticut.)

The preference of pollinators varies by species, but, in general, native insects prefer native plants. That relationship, though, is much more complicated than that simple premise. It can take a variety of plants to support one pollinator species, as many insects require a host plant plus sources for nectar and pollen. Those three needs aren’t typically provided by a single plant species.

The needs within a species can also be varied. For instance, short-tongued bees are attracted to cup-shaped flowers, while long-tongued bees prefer tubular ones. The preference of medium-tongued bees falls somewhere in between. Gegear said many residential and commercial landscapes lack tubular flowers.

At both the Southborough and Dartmouth sites, where native plants of all shapes and sizes have been planted, Gegear said the reintroduction of a diverse collection of native plantings has resulted in the emergence of pollinators and birds, such as the white-throated sparrow, that are regionally in decline.

Black swallowtail butterfly larva.
A black swallowtail butterfly larva. (Diane Postoian)

As Gegear and his research team continue to discover what native plants support what native insects, there are things concerned backyard gardeners can do now to help protect and restore native pollination systems and the ecosystems they support: plant native species; replace lawns with meadows and gardens; and lay off the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Gegear offered tips for home gardeners interested in supporting pollinators:

Select nectar and pollen plants so there are blooms in every season (March-May) (June-July) (August-September).

Spring floral resources are important for at-risk pollinators, so give them a high priority.

Be aware that in most cases, the species of a plant is far more beneficial to pollinators than named cultivars.

Select plants that target as many species of pollinators as possible, as a good habitat will support species at risk over the entire season.

Leave some soil bare for ground-nesting bees.

The National Audubon Society also offers some suggestions to support and encourage the diversity and health of pollinators:

Go natural with your lawn. Allow flowers such as clover and dandelions to grow.

Select native New England flowering plants and bushes. Use pollen-producing plants in planters and on apartment balconies. (While eastern bumblebees are attracted to non-native plants, other bumblebees don’t like foreign varieties.)

Refrain from clearing leaf litter and cutting old plant stalks as insects lay their eggs in these and use them for overwintering shelter.

Leave dead trees on your property, as many pollinators use decaying trees to lay their eggs and pupate into adults.

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  1. One of the tips that Robert Gegear offers is, “spring floral resources are important for at-risk pollinators, so give them high priority.”
    Yes, pollinators (and other insects) that depend on plants that flower in the early spring (March-April) are at increased risk because there are simply not many native plants that flower at that time of the year, when out in the open meadows there is still a high likelihood of snow, wind chill, and below-freezing temperatures. But in the forest, there is a unique group of wildflowers that collectively bloom as early as March to take advantage of the high light intensities that get to the forest floor before the tree canopy completes leaf out. Ecologists refer to this collection of plants as the “spring ephemeral” community.

    Some of the plants include hepatica, red and white baneberry, trout lily, violets, trilliums, bloodroot, ginseng, claytonia, and wild lily-of-the-valley. People who spend time looking in the oldest Rhode Island forests know of these plants and others. All of them would have been common in the matured pre-colonial forest that blanketed RI; today, they are the state’s rarest plants because of the devastation that has been wrought on those forests.

    The largest and most diverse spring ephemeral communities are found in older forests, carpeting acres with mostly white flowers. Accordingly, a unique group of insect visitors/pollinators evolved to take advantage of the abundant, albeit fleeting, food supply. Most of the pollinators are solitary bees that complete their breeding cycle by the time the flowers have withered away in May.
    It should not be surprising to learn that along with the decline in spring ephemeral plants has been a complimentary loss of the insects that depend on them. We do not have a complete understanding of the diversity of plants and animals that were represented in Rhode Island’s historic spring ephemeral communities. The historic record for plants runs back to around 1860, but there is relatively nothing for most insects. But in general, history does tell us that the extinction of a plant results in the extinction of at least one animal, most of them insects. Moreover, these losses are indicative of additional losses in other biological groups (fungi, mosses, invertebrates, etc.) of species inhabiting mature forest ecosystems.

    The spring ephemeral plant community, on which this all depends, is rapidly disappearing from Rhode Island. Several of the representative plants have already been lost, extirpated from the state, and several others are at the brink. With government viewing Rhode Island’s relatively young forests as mostly ready to harvest, the extirpation of forest plants and animals is likely to continue.

    So, readers of this story might ask, what can I do as a gardener? First thoughts might be including spring ephemerals in your “pollinator” gardens, but most of these plants are difficult to grow in gardens. At this juncture, it is best to concentrate on spring ephemeral plant populations that are still out there, and ensure their continuance by preserving the forest they exist in, as is. These communities can also serve as reintroduction sites for species not currently represented.

    Spring ephemeral communities on state lands are at the mercy of a government that looks at forests for their economic potential, as production centers for commodity timber and wildlife. Private landowners on the other hand can make a choice, depending on their personal views. When government comes to call and tells the landowner there’s cash for taxes in those trees, many will bite. When government comes and says you’ll have more wildlife if you cut them trees down, many will bite. The smart ones will ask, what’s wrong with the wildlife that’s here already?

    For those of you, landowners or not, who understand that the current level of plant and animal extirpations from Rhode Island’s forests is unacceptable, I would urge you to make those feelings known to your state representatives who are currently considering a bill to preserve Rhode Island’s old growth forests.

  2. MEADOWSCAPING FOR BIODIVERSITY (MS4B, meadowmaking.org) is a STEAM-learning, project-based, environmental education program that exposes youth to the benefits of being outdoors in nature and empowers them to be environmental stewards. Youth learn “intentional gardening”—gardening with pollinator-friendly perennial native plants—with the intention of restoring biodiversity and building healthy, resilient communities.
    MS4B offers three program lines: 1) the summer, fall or spring Youth Environmental Entrepreneurship Program (YEEP) for teens, age 15-19; 2) the YEEP high school volunteer program where youth earn service-learning credits for removing invasive plants and replacing them with native plants in their communities; and, 3) the YEEP service business where high school and college youth design and install native-plant gardens for property owners. MS4B also delivers talks and workshops around biodiversity, native plant-pollinator connections, and nature-based solutions to climate change.
    YEEP, a career-readiness/community-resilience program, guides high school students through the creation and operation of a specialty landscape business where the students sell and install native plants throughout their community. YEEP links learning to working and puts youth on a path toward defining their career and academic interests. All programs ignite curiosity and give youth tools to address major challenges to the society and the environment. These are nature-deprivation disorder, ecological indifference, lack of biodiversity, and climate change.
    Please call or write me to find out more about this wonderful program.

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