In the lush green fields where our fruits and vegetables are grown, there is a process that perfectly exemplifies the interconnectedness of all beings. It is often forgotten or unseen by the general public, but without it, there would be far less food on our table, and medicine in our cabinets. The process is called pollination, and birds, bees, bats, butterflies, and other animals all play a part.
It occurs when the pollinator moves the pollen from the male plant to the female. The pollen acts as the plant-equivalent of sperm, fertilizing the female for reproduction, as well as fruit and seed production. Some plants are self-pollinating, meaning that they can fertilize themselves. Many plants, however, are cross-pollinating, meaning that they cannot do this on their own. They need animals capable of flight and movement to bring the process full-cycle, and flowering plants have evolved over the years to attract these pollen-moving creatures.
Pollinators are an essential part of the production cycle for plants, and farmers in the U.S. need them, too. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one third of agricultural production in the U.S. depends on pollinators. This not only includes food, but also plants used to create medicines and alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, one of the world’s most successful pollinating animals is at risk, and there are necessary changes that must occur in order to save them.
Why are pollinators in trouble?
According to the Pollinator Partnership, many pollinators are federally “listed species,” which means there have been observed decline in populations. The decline of the honey bee is especially concerning, with a loss of around half of the managed honey bee colonies in the past ten years. The Nature Conservancy names this dying species “the greatest pollinating machine when it comes to agriculture,” which highlights the danger involved in losing the honey bee.
The loss of pollinators has many causes, from destruction of habitat to the overuse of chemicals and pesticides. As numbers continue to fall, the situation may appear dire, but there are things that anyone can do to help save pollinators and U.S. agriculture.
How can we help?
One of the easiest ways to start is to plant pollinator-friendly plants in your backyard. Some favorites of the honey bee include zinnias, hyacinths, golden rod, and bee balm. For bird pollinators like the hummingbird, bright red, nectar producing plants are a good choice. The USDA Forest Service also recommends that these flowers be tubular with a strong support for perching. Some examples include trumpet honeysuckle and manzanita. The best choices are always native plants, or plants that naturally occur in a particular area.
Additionally, the use of natural fertilizers and pesticides will help reduce the impact on bees who visit your garden. Instead, we can rely on other insects like lady bugs and praying mantises to eliminate the produce-eating pests. With strong, wide-spread populations of honey bees and other pollinators, U.S. agriculture will reap the benefits, providing humanity with successful crop production year round.