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Protecting the pollinators

Immediate action needed to save bees, birds, and insects from extinction

Created date

September 16th, 2016
Two bumble bees and a crab spider visiting a purple cone flower in DeWitt, Mich.

Two bumble bees and a crab spider visiting a purple cone flower in DeWitt, Mich.

Each year, monarch butterflies travel nearly 2,500 miles, flying en mass from the colder climate of Canada and the northern states to the warmth of Mexico and Southern California. It is a phenomenon that is both fascinating and perplexing, as scientists don’t know exactly how or why the colorful insects make their annual migration. 

What is known, however, is that the monarch butterfly may become extinct over the next twenty years. Their population has been decimated, shrinking by 90% over the past two decades. 

Vigorous genetically engineered corn and soybean crops are overtaking the once commonplace milkweed plant, the only known food source of monarch caterpillars. Simply put, there is not enough food to sustain a large population of monarchs. 

“We need to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act and increase protections for their summer breeding habitat or the next generation of children may never see a monarch butterfly,” says Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Butterflies are not the only species facing a dire future. For the second consecutive year, beekeepers reported a greater than 40% decline in the number of honeybee colonies. The bees have been wiped out by colony collapse disorder, which occurs when the majority of worker bees abandon the hive, leaving the queen to be cared for by the remaining few. The loss of all those workers eventually causes the colony to perish. 

The pollinators

Butterflies and bees, along with bats, birds, and other insects, are pollinators. They serve on the front line of a prosperous agricultural system. They pollinate vegetation and without them crops don’t bear fruit or flowers—an outcome that impacts both our economy and our well-being. 

“More than a third of our food is dependent on pollinators, and we cannot afford to let their catastrophic declines continue to go unchecked,” says Larissa Walker, the pollinator program director at the Center for Food Safety.

Honeybee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion to the nation’s agricultural crops per year. And those crops are not just the source of what we eat; they are also used to make medicines and other necessities of life.

The drastic reduction of pollinators is due to a number of factors including pesticide use, the disruption or elimination of pollinator habitats, and parasites that have recently found their way to the U.S. from other areas of the world. 

Taking action

President Obama created an interagency task force to address the decline of pollinator populations, and federal agencies are developing strategies to help. Many wildlife and conservation organizations have called for a ban on neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide know to have a significant impact on the health of pollinators. 

While the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to ban neonicotinoids, states such as Maryland have banned them. Earlier this year, Scott’s Miracle-Gro announced that it would remove neonicotinoids from its Ortho brand line of outdoor pest-control products. 

‘Bee counted’

Last year, dozens of conservation and gardening organizations joined together to form the National Pollinator Garden Network, which represents nearly one million active gardeners and 15,000 schoolyard gardens. To help the network establish one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016, they have issued the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (MPGC), a nationwide call to create gardens that help revive pollinator populations across America. 

The first step in accepting the challenge is to plant a pollinator garden. Whether you have a window box, a backyard garden, or a large field, anyone can contribute. You can find a great deal of useful information about choosing the best plants for your region at

Then, register your garden on that same website where you will be connected to millions of others actively supporting pollinators.

 “What a profound and important opportunity this is,” says Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership. “We are coming together as a nation to share our landscapes with bees and butterflies; each of us can support the very creatures that support us every day.” 

“If we all work together—individuals; communities; farmers; land managers; and local, state, and federal agencies—we can ensure that every American child has a chance to enjoy the beauty of creatures like bees, monarch butterflies, and hummingbirds,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “By joining forces with the National Pollinator Garden Network on the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, the National Wildlife Federation and our affiliates are amplifying these collective efforts to address the growing threats affecting so much of America’s treasured wildlife.” 

Pollinator gardens should:

• Use plants that provide nectar and pollen sources

• Provide a water source

• Be situated in sunny areas with wind breaks

• Create large “pollinator targets” of native or noninvasive plants

• Establish continuous bloom throughout the growing season 

• Eliminate or minimize the impact of pesticides