Befriending Pollinators

Photo by Sarah Whiting

Pollinators are responsible for roughly one out of every three bites we eat. Around 80 percent of plants rely on pollinators in order to reproduce. These plants support countless animals, stabilize soils, and filter water, among many other things.

Tiny, winged insects move from flower to flower gathering food for themselves and, in the process, make the connections that create the world as we know it.

My interest in bee conservation grew out of a passion for environmental conservation, working to change a system that turns natural resources into capital and uses that capital to put one species, one culture, and one sex above others to gain more capital and control.

Insects grabbed my attention because they are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, by several orders of magnitude, and have a huge impact on the way the world functions, yet are overlooked in most conservation efforts.

Pollinators can be a gateway insect: charismatic, fuzzy animals that put food on our plates. After understanding pollinators, popular culture may recognize the importance of insects of the more creepy-crawly variety that are essential to other important ecosystem functions, like nutrient cycling and soil fertility.

The rusty-patched bumble bee

Minnesota pollinators are a diverse group, with over 470 bees, as well as many flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, and even a pollinating bird, the ruby-throated hummingbird. Although scientists have been raising the alarm on pollinator declines for over 50 years, most people were not aware of the importance of pollinators until about 15 years ago, when beekeepers reported the disappearance of many managed Western honey bees, a bee species that was introduced to the Americas by European colonists. Scientists know that the combined stresses of lack of flowers, pesticides, pests, diseases, and climate change have resulted in health problems for honey bees and population declines in many other pollinators.

One key difference between honey bees and native pollinators is that beekeepers are able to replace honey bee colonies. There is no concern for honey bees’ continued existence, even if their overall health has been in decline. However, other pollinators may simply disappear without our being able to replace them, with us likely not even being aware of their disappearance.

One bumble bee that has almost disappeared is the rusty- patched bumble bee, which lives in forests, prairies, urban gardens, and city parks. We are lucky to still have these bees in Minnesota, since they have disappeared from 95 percent of the places they used to live. With this luck comes an opportunity to turn the tide and help rusty-patched bumble bees recover from the brink of extinction.

Volunteers have helped me collect data on the rusty-patched and other bumble bees for the last 15 years. While my primary motivation in engaging volunteers is to collect more data from more places, my heart fills when I see people of all ages discover firsthand the beauty and importance of animals they had feared, discounted, or just not noticed.

I knew I was doing the right work when a five-year old girl told me, “I used to be scared of bees, but now they are my favorite animal.”

One action many people have taken to help pollinators is to plant flowers. With increased awareness of the interconnection of living things, the purpose of our gardens and green spaces has started to shift. Gardens are not just places to entertain us with splashes of color, but places to support plants and animals. Hundreds of gardeners have supported the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee with the flowers they provide. Planting diverse, native plants is our best tool to create deep and wide connections.

Creating and protecting pollinator homes and food sources, raising awareness, and gathering and sharing information on pollinators can help more people see the connections that insects have to plants, that plants have to us. Hopefully this will help people see the connection we have to each other as we work towards a more equitable world on every level.

Elaine Evans is a University of Minnesota extension educator and researcher working on pollinator education and research relating to bee conservation. Elaine has authored books including “Befriending Bumble Bees: A Guide to Raising Local Bumble Bees” and “Managing Alternative Pollinators.”

What steps can you take to help the rusty-patched bumble bee? 

1. Plant diverse flowers, shrubs, and trees that bloom from April to September, and keep them free of pesticides. 

2. Create messy, undisturbed spaces (piles of sticks or leaves) that can give the bees safe places to live. 

3. Support clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and local economies. 

4. Collect data by taking and sharing photos on iNaturalist.org

5. Tell your friends, neighbors, and co-workers about the importance of pollinators and what they can do to help.

6. Join the Minnesota Bumble Bee Atlas, a volunteer-powered scientific bumblebee survey, to fill gaps in knowledge. Learn more about bumble bees, access online training materials, and claim a survey spot at mnbumblebeeatlas.umn.edu.

Pollinator advocates are authoring bills in the Minnesota Legislature

In the most recent legislative session, a coalition of nearly 40 national and local conservation groups brought forward five bills intended to lessen or halt pesticide exposure in urban and rural areas, backyards, schoolyards, croplands, wildlife refuges, and communities. Harmful pesticides include chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide that is known for damaging the human nervous system, especially in children. It is highly toxic to animals and pollinators and is now a common contaminate in U.S. drinking water.

 According to agricultural ecologists in the coalition, alternative methods to synthetic chemical use are available to farmers, including regenerative practices. These non-toxic methods emphasize soil health, protecting pollinators and water quality, and are increasing in popularity. 

“Some [agriculture] sectors believe it is a threat to their revenue, others don’t know how to make a change, and it is difficult for them,” Lori Cox, owner of Roots Return Heritage Farm in Carver, stated in a press release by Pollinator Friendly Alliance. “To have a good, workable, accessible, profitable [agriculture] system throughout Minnesota, we have to grow it locally, which includes our pollinator communities.”

Emerging Farmers’ Working Group Legislative Report, January 2021

In ag omnibus bill, Minnesota is not quite so poised to lead an environmental breakthrough, Bluestem Prairie, April 2021