Pollinators

Pollinators are vital for modern agriculture as well as the natural world. If we care about our food supply, we must care about pollinators. Pollinators are crucial to producing much of our food while also providing economic benefit to farming communities. Thirty-five percent of global food production relies on insect pollination.

Pollinators are a group mostly comprised of insects – but also some birds and mammals – that help to fertilize plants by moving pollen from one part of a flowering plant to another. Almost all flowering plants require some kind of external fertilization.

The rate of loss among pollinator populations has been increasing in recent years. Historically, beekeepers see an annual loss of around 15% of their hives during the winter, but since 2006 annual losses have averaged 30%. In addition to the honeybee population decline, the number of monarch butterflies hit an all-time low in 2013-2014, and the relatively less studied native bee populations are also in decline.  This decline poses a threat to both the economy and environment.

 

The Economic Importance of Pollinators

It is estimated that pollinators add more than 24 billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year, $15 billion from the honeybee population alone. Farmers across the country and around the world rely on native pollinators and managed bees to pollinate their crops. Honeybees pollinate more than 90 commercially grown crops in North America, and 87 of the 115 most popular commercially grown crops globally rely on animal pollination.

Although many of the commercial crops grown in the Midwest, such as corn and soybeans, do not require pollination, pollinators are still essential to Midwestern agriculture. Crops such as apples, cranberries, peaches, berries, pumpkins, and squash all require insect pollination.  Without pollination, these crops may be unable to flower and produce fruit. If they do flower, the fruit may be smaller or deformed, making them less appealing to the consumer. Without enough pollinators to pollinate their crops, farmers see lower yields and lower quality product which results in decreased revenue.

 

Why Pollinators are Dying

There are several known causes for the decline in pollinator populations including habitat loss, increased exposure to pesticides, inadequate diets, mite infestations, diseases, and loss of genetic diversity.

Scientists have also been studying a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), an unexpected sudden death of a large percentage of the population in a bee hive. Research is still being conducted to find the exact causes of CCD but it is expected that pathogens, parasites, and stressors contribute to the phenomenon.

Bees need large and diverse habitats, and these areas are becoming few and far between as more land is developed and fragmented. The development of monoculture and the destruction of prairie land mean that most pollinator habitats today are small patches that are far apart and unable to support large populations.

Current Pollinator Defense Initiatives

The federal government and many state governments have begun to protect pollinator populations. Initiatives include research, pesticide control, habitat protection, awareness, and supporting the beekeeper industry. At this point, policy has relied almost entirely on voluntary measures.

Currently, at least 18 states have enacted some sort of legislation aimed at protecting pollinator populations. The federal government passed the Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2015 to help address the impact that pesticides have on pollinator populations.  In addition to legislation, several governmental agencies, such as the USDA and the EPA, are starting to establish programs designed at improving the health of pollinator populations.

State plans

Michigan

Michigan EPA released its Proposal to Mitigate Exposure to Bees from Acutely Toxic Pesticide Products in 2015. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development developed their own Managed Pollinator Protection Plan (MP3). The MP3 has three goals:

The MP3 lays out a ten step plan for reaching these goals and can be found online here. Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will release the Best Management Practice guide for crops to help inform farmers and beekeepers of how to best manage pollinators.

Wisconsin

In 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection released their Pollinator Protection Plan with the goals of “Improving public understanding of pollinator health issues and actions that affect pollinators [and] minimizing risks to pollinators through voluntary actions that Wisconsin residents, businesses and agencies can take.” The plan relies on education and suggests voluntary measures to expand pollinator habitat, minimize stressors on bees, increase managed bee health and increase awareness of pollinator friendly practices.

Minnesota

Minnesota has passed several laws aimed at protecting pollinator health; in 2013, HB 976 appropriated $300,000 over two years to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture so they could develop Best Management Practices to protect and enlarge pollinator habitat.  In 2014, Minnesota enacted a trio of bills to protect pollinators. HB 3172 authorized the commissioner of agriculture to take action against violations of law harmful to pollinators, such as applying pesticides in an incorrect manner. HB 3172 designated Minnesota Zoological Garden as the official state pollinator bank, and HB 2798 limited what kind of plants could be labeled as beneficial to pollinators, specifically banning those plants treated with insecticides that can be absorbed into the plant.

Illinois

In August of 2018, three solar friendly bills became public acts. Among them was the “Pollinator Friendly Solar Site Act,” i.e. SB 3214. The legislation requires solar companies to meet a pollinator standard if they intend to present their project as “pollinator friendly.” A scorecard developed by the University of Illinois Department of Entomology will serve as this standard. Joining the spirit of similar legislation in Minnesota and Maryland, this act will lead to increased pollinator-friendly habitat on solar energy project sites in Illinois.

 

More on Pollinators

© 2019 Environmental Law & Policy Center