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Conservation Strategies for Endangered Pollinators

People often swath flies, moths, and other insects to death without giving them a second thought. However, some species of insects serve essential roles in conserving plant populations worldwide. Sadly, these endangered pollinators have come under serious strain over the years.

This article focuses on endangered pollinators and discusses pollinator conservation methods and challenges. 

What are pollinators?

Poweshiek skipperling
Photo by USFWS Midwest Region on Flickr (Public Domain).

A pollinator is an animal that helps plants reproduce by spreading pollen to the parts of the flower where fertilization takes place. Without pollination, flowering plants cannot produce fruits, which in turn produce seeds.

Birds that feed on nectar and flower-visiting mammals like bats are some examples. We also have insect pollinators like the bee species, butterflies, beetles, wasps, and moths. In the United States, the most important pollinators include the rusty patched bumble bee, the monarch butterfly, and the Poweshiek skipperling. 

Pollinators play an important role in ensuring food security. Many farmers rely on them to guarantee crop yield. In many ways, they contribute to the economy and to human health. Many of the plant resources we enjoy, such as timber, fiber, oils, medicinal plants, etc., wouldn't be available to us without pollinators.

Even pollinators that are pollinating wild plants are engineering important ecological services on a global scale. They're aiding biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and soil stabilization.

How are pollinators endangered? 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says more than 70 species of pollinators are endangered.  More than 25% of North America's bumble bees are at risk of extinction. The rusty patched bumble bee, once abundant in Minnesota and North Dakota, for instance, was last observed in 2003.

Various threats, including habitat loss, pollution, diseases, and predation, threaten pollinator health. We also have unexplained phenomena like the Colony Collapse Disorder, which killed millions of worker bees.

The most endangered pollinators are insect pollinators because they are so delicate. Let's look at some issues contributing to their endangerment.

Related Read: Are Bees Endangered?

Habitat loss

Many species of animals are severely affected when they lose their habitats. Natural fires or other events that cause habitats to change are usually temporary. However, human encroachment for agriculture, residence, etc, usually introduces a more permanent change.

Pollinators, especially insect pollinators, typically face a rapid decline when a natural area is lost. They lose their feeding and nesting sites and any protection that their environment offers against predators.

Pollinators that migrate face problems on their way to their overwintering sites. Their once clear migratory path is now fragmented into disconnected patches of habitats. It makes their journey harder if the wintering habitat remains intact.

Habitat disturbance 

dakota skipper
Photo by USFWS Midwest Region on Flickr (Public Domain).

Some pollinator species require a specialized habitat to survive. So, if their habitat is disturbed but not completely lost, they are still at risk. Their special habitats may provide specific weather conditions or contain specific plants necessary for survival.

For example, the Dakota skipper, a small butterfly, is a threatened species. It only occurs in the native tallgrass prairies of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Saskatchewan, and Southern Manitoba. You can plant flowers all you want, but they need that particular prairie environment. The adults feed primarily on purple coneflower.

Another example is the larvae of the Monarch butterfly, which only feed on milkweed. A scarcity of that plant species, for any reason, puts the entire population at risk.

Invasive species 

Another issue pollinators face is invasion. Native pollinators are usually dependent on the native plants. So when an invasive plant takes the place of its host plants, it is put in a difficult situation as their food source would eventually be eradicated.

Not only do invasive plants cause problems, but invasive pollinators can also be an issue. For example, commercially reared bumble bees can contaminate and spread diseases in the native population. There's also the problem of invasive pathogens, like the varroa mite that troubles honey bees.

Hunting 

hummingbird
Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash.

In addition to environmental problems, some pollinator populations are captured or killed for various reasons. Sometimes, it's just for sports, and other times, people believe they have some medicinal or mystical value. 

In some parts of the world, like Latin America, people hunt hummingbirds. Because they believe they can make love potions with dead hummingbirds. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 18 of the 58 hummingbird species in Mexico are at risk. Although the bird is under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it's still being hunted unsustainably.

Climate change 

dried up flower
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash.

Due to climate change, weather patterns are changing, and temperatures are warming up. Higher temperatures could cause plants to bloom earlier and not all pollinators can adapt to that. Their host plants could be out of season before they emerge from their cocoons or migrate.

Also, climate change can bring on prolonged droughts. That can mean less nectar and pollen resources available to pollinators. Poor nutrition can compromise the pollinator’s ability to reproduce healthy offspring. Not to mention, severe drought also causes wildfires to be more of a problem.

On the other hand, increased rainfall in some regions can obstruct pollinators' ability to fly as much as they normally would. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to gather food and pollinate.

How to protect endangered pollinators 

Pollinator conservation has been ongoing for a long time, and efforts are still being made to save more pollinators. There has been progress, but not as much as anticipated.

So, what strategies are currently being used, and how can they be improved? We discuss that below.

Legislative protection

rusty-patched bumble bee
Photo by USFWS Midwest Region on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Many threatened and rare species of pollinators are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or some equivalent, depending on what part of the world they live in. The Act aims to protect pollinators from poaching, hunting, or indiscriminate killings. The rusty-patched bumble bee, yellow-banded bumble bee, and many other insects are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Act can also dictate land use and pesticide restrictions. The critical habitat of a pollinator is also worth protecting, so large areas are also designated as conservation reserves. The rare milkweed is one of the many protected plants deemed necessary for the larvae of a particular pollinator species.

The problem with the Protection Acts is a lack of enforcement. Because protected sites are little or not monitored, people get away with disregarding the regulations all the time. Sending out monitoring teams can be expensive, but with AI-enabled remote surveillance, many offenders will be caught and sanctioned.

Stakeholder participation

Pollinator conservation is a job that requires partnerships with farmers and landowners. There is also a need for science-based partnerships with organizations. With cooperation, even urban areas can support pollinators.

Landowners need to create and improve pollinator habitat on their lands. This usually means making it hospitable to some other wildlife as well. They need to understand how and when to apply pesticides and which ones are unsafe for pollinators. They also need more information on what native plants the target species prefers.

Federal agencies in charge of pollinator restoration can only do so much due to budget and manpower inadequacies. They need an extensive network of partners to monitor pollinator populations locally. Small organizations (like a high school science club) will need technical and financial assistance to help with restoration efforts. 

Habitat restoration 

pollinator habitat
Photo by Lars Plougmann on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Resisting habitat loss is difficult. Many development corporations do not care about pollinators and other wildlife. They just want to set up their farms, factories, condos, etc., and they have the resources and influence to resist groups lobbying for habitat conservation.

However, pollinator conservation cannot succeed if uncontrolled land conversion continues. Some pollinators can only survive in isolated, undisturbed environments. That is why lobbyists must put more effort into getting legislative protection for natural land areas.

Untouched habitats are essential as they provide the blueprint for restoring any disturbed pollinator habitat. Habitat restoration involves removing invasive organisms and reintroducing natives. We should also remove pollutants such as plastic and chemical waste.

Monitoring and research 

monitoring healthy pollinators
Photo by NRCS Oregon on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

There are over 3,600 bee species native to Canada and the United States, but most conservation efforts focus on only a small group of generalist species. That oversight is often unintentional; there just isn't enough information on many pollinator species. Some pollinator populations could be dying out rapidly, and we wouldn't know.

Monitoring involves closely watching to see how pollinators respond to conservation attempts. Proper tracking can tell us quite quickly if we need to change or intensify a particular strategy.

Many concerned organizations and stakeholders agree that pollinator research needs to be expanded and deepened. Expanding scientific knowledge would provide answers to many questions, such as ‘What factors are interfering with conservation efforts?’, ‘How can we protect pollinators against diseases? ’ and so on.

Public awareness  

Many people are not directly involved with pollinator conservation, but they should still be aware of the problem. If members of the public are aware of how their actions may directly affect pollinators, they can be more considerate. People can't be expected to take action to save the pollinators that they know nothing about.

An individual should be able to identify beneficial insects like pollinators. They should also learn how best to interact with the environment so that they do not compromise pollinator habitat. Another helpful thing would be understanding how protecting rare species benefits the world.

The rusty-patched bumble bee and the yellow-banded bumble bee are examples of insect pollinators that need a special habitat. Unlike other bumble bees, which can feed on a wide range of flowers, they both require a selection of host plants.

Organizations that protect pollinators 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a national agency that works to conserve wildlife all over America. The organization partners with other federal agencies, local authorities, and NGOs to achieve its mission. 

The agency has various programs, one of which is the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. This initiative allows them to provide technical and financial support to landowners interested in creating or improving wildlife habitat on their land. 

Another inter-agency program is the National Seed Strategy. Through this program, they distribute the seeds of native plants to people who need them. That way, they can help native pollinators thrive.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Pollinator Task Force

The Great Lakes Restoration Pollinator Taskforce was established in 2017. The Task Force consists of staff from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The organization strives to help native insect pollinators throughout the Great Lakes Basin. Its focus is on habitat restoration, research, monitoring, and increasing public awareness. Its major areas of concern include toxic substances, invasive organisms, habitat restoration services, and foundations for future restoration.

Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation 

The Xerces Society is an international nonprofit working to conserve the most vulnerable invertebrates. The organization is well known for successfully petitioning to protect eight native bee species under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Xerces Society works to conserve endangered species, with a special focus on pollinators. It also campaigns for reduced pesticide use through various means, including research. Furthermore, the Xerces Society collaborates with researchers and landowners to conduct experiments on pollinator habitat management.

Conclusion

Bees, birds, and other pollinators are essential to our lives. They put food on tables and keep plant resources renewable. A world with endangered pollinators is a word at risk. We must focus on protecting pollinators to avoid expanding the endangered species list. You can preserve many species, especially bumble bees, by planting some native flowers. It can be that simple.

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash.
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