Pollinators, the 4 Biggest Threats They Face, and Why You Should Care

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by Jayne Rising

Besides drought, disease. and supply chain disruptions, another problem that could cause food shortages is a lack of pollinators. 87% of plants require pollination to reproduce. 1/3 of food crops require pollination. In the US, beekeepers have lost 30-42% of their colonies every year since 2006. 

While it’s true that many plants, such as squash, can be hand pollinated, have you ever done an entire agricultural field that way? And what about crops with tiny flowers, like cucumbers? One who can reliably hand-pollinate a cucumber is a better gardener than I! Insects do this job SO much better. In this article, we will look at pollinators and the problems they’re currently facing. 

Let’s talk about the birds and the bees! 

Seriously, both pollinate plants. Bees are the most well-known pollinators, but they’re far from the only ones. Birds, wasps, butterflies, and beetles also pollinate various plants. Moreover, honey bees aren’t the only species of interest. There are 20,000 species of bees worldwide and 500 in my home state of Wisconsin. The most common pollinators here are honey bees, bumblebees, Mason bees, leafcutters, sweat bees, miners, and small carpenters.

I see bumbles and Mason bees in my yard primarily. The bees are collecting pollen to feed their hive. They’re grocery shopping, basically, and they visit up to 1000 flowers per trip. Butterflies, moths, and other insects are doing the same thing: feeding their young. As they go from flower to flower, the pollinators spread pollen, allowing the plants to reproduce. Many fruits contain seeds, of course. So, everyone benefits from one of nature’s delightful balances. 

What are the nesting habits of bees?

Some bees are more social than others. Honey bees, for example, prefer hives, while bumblebees are a bit more solitary. Exact nesting habits depend upon the species. However, bees generally prefer to reuse spaces such as chipmunk or rabbit burrows, preexisting holes in wood or hollow stems, compost piles, and in-ground. It’s not uncommon to find squash bees sleeping in the closed squash flowers during the day.

Artificial bee houses are becoming more common, and you can easily make them. Check out this site for principles of construction and plans. 

Native vs. nonnative plants and why it matters.

The scientific definition of a native plant is as follows. The plant in question:

  1. Occurs naturally
  2. In their ecoregion and habitat where
  3. Throughout evolutionary time
  4. They have adapted to physical conditions and co-evolved with the other species in the system.

We can’t say a plant is native without saying where it’s native to. Adaptation to the local ecosystem matters a great deal. Nonnative plants, therefore, are not adapted to the ecosystem in question. That matters because pollinators are a part of the ecosystem and consequently adapted to the plants within it. Moreover, not all bees will frequent all plants within the ecosystem. Squash bees, for example, frequent only the flowers of squashes and related plants.

By planting species that are native to your area, you support the pollinators that adapted to those species. When considering pollinators other than bees, you’ll want to consider both the larval and host stages of the organism. In the case of butterflies, both the caterpillar and the butterfly will need food. 

Resources to help you determine which species of pollinators and the plants they love in your area include your county Extension office and various beekeeping societies. 

Problem #1: Varroa mites (Varroa destructor and V. jacobsoni) 

These tiny mites are parasites that feed on honey bees. Their entire life cycle takes place within the honey beehive. Adult females lay eggs in the bee’s brood cells. Females feed on adult honey bees, whereas males parasitize both larvae and pupae. The result is a significantly weakened bee. Females are also excellent virus vectors, spreading additional diseases throughout the hive. Their slow initial rate of population growth makes it difficult to detect infection early. [source]

There are several ways to control them, from buying mite-resistant honey bees to using smaller cell combs to brood break and trapping. Chemical controls include formic and oxalic acids, thymol, hops beta acids, and Amitraz. [source]

Problem #2: Habitat Loss/Fragmentation 

Pollinator habitat has been fragmented and lost to agriculture, resource extraction, and human settlement. Human activities have also degraded habitats. Although altered landscapes can provide flowers to feed, landscaping destroys nesting and overwintering sites. Many bees and butterflies are habitat-specific, meaning they don’t just pick up and move to another location. Destruction of their native habitat often means the destruction of the pollinators in that area. Ground-nesting bees need loose soil that they can dig in. Trampling that soil removes nesting areas and might even destroy the nest. 

Fragmentation of the habitat causes a loss of biodiversity. It also means that pollinators must fly further to obtain pollen. Some species can do this. However, weak flyer species will often go extinct. Habitat needs to be large enough to support diversity. Edge effects, those spots around the edges where habitats meet, also matter. 

Problem #3: Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony collapse occurs when all worker bees leave the hive, leaving only the queen and immature larvae behind. Since a colony cannot survive without its workers, the hive will eventually die. Causes include disease, pesticide poisoning, the Varroa mite, habitat change, inadequate/poor nutrition, and several different stressors. Neonicotinoids, especially imidacloprid, have been linked to this problem. 

Problem #4: Pesticides

Pesticides are a massive problem for bees and other pollinators. Insecticides aren’t picky about which insect they kill, and overuse destroys the natural soil fauna. Soil fauna includes earthworms and beetles as well as beneficial microbes, including Rhizobium and mycorrhizae. It’s better to build up your soil and plant-resistant varieties if possible. If you must use pesticides, use only what’s needed to solve the problem. It’s also helpful to time application for when the pollinators aren’t out.

And above all things, avoid neonicotinoids! These pesticides are:

  • Acetamiprid
  • Clothianidin
  • Dinotefuran
  • Imidacloprid
  • Nitenpyram
  • Thiacloprid
  • Thiamethoxam

A number of these were pulled from the regular market in 2019, and the remaining are up for re-registration in 2022. However, it’s still possible to purchase plants and seeds treated with these pesticides. Home Depot is one of the retailers requiring that plants so treated are labeled. So read the label carefully before you buy! Lowe’s has pledged to stop its use of these entirely, as have many other stores. 

For more information on this class of pesticides, go here and here.

How can we help as gardeners?

We can help pollinators in many ways. By providing proper habitat and native species, we support the life cycle of our pollinators. Minimizing the use of pesticides removes a heavily toxic substance from the environment, and timing the use also helps. Spraying after sunset when the bees aren’t out gathering pollen is better than spraying while they’re out and about!

Putting up a bee house can help, and putting off the first mow of spring is also helpful. Mowing can destroy the nest. It also removes dandelion and other flowers that appear early, often the first food for pollinators coming out of hibernation. It’s a matter of enlightened self-interest. By supporting our pollinators, we support our gardens and help stabilize our food supply.

What can you do in your area to support pollinators?

Have you done anything differently in your garden to help? Do you have other helpful suggestions or facts you would like to share? Let’s talk about the birds and bees in our comments section!

About Jayne

Jayne Rising is a gardener and bookworm with a BS from the University of Wisconsin and a Master Gardener certification. She’s been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010 and teaching others how to do it since 2015. She’s involved in a number of local urban agriculture initiatives, working to bring a sustainable and healthy food system back into the mainstream.

Pollinators, the 4 Biggest Threats They Face, and Why You Should Care
Jayne.Rising

Jayne.Rising

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31 Responses

  1. I interplant marigolds and nasturtiums among the vegetables in my raised beds. They attract bees to my garden and repel mites. I don’t use pesticides. My wife has numerous flower beds around our house and we have both a year-round blooming rosemary hedge that the bees love and native wildflowers. We have a mesquite tree and several fruit trees with blooms the bees pollinate. The result is we have a lot of bees around.

    1. Wonderful! That’s so heartening to hear. I’d like to know how you deal with the diseases in your garden though. If I could cut down my pesticide use that would be wonderful.

      1. I also use no pesticides in my gardens. I use companion planting and natural fertilizers for the soil. Some of the tomato problems come from bacteria in the soil. To remedy this, I lay down black plastic to keep the rain from splashing the dirt onto the plants. I put a layer of straw on top of the plastic to keep it from getting too hot and burning up the plants. Air flow is another good thing for the garden. If possible allow chickens to roam your garden once plants are big enough. I always plant extra to make up for any losses and if I get a bumper crop I share! Starting with my neighbor, there are 4 beekeepers on a 5 mile stretch. Lots of honey bees here for pollinating.

    2. I too mix marigolds in my garden. Retrain from using insecticides as much as possible. Also maintain bee colonies. 2 with supers, one captured “swarm, and a ” nucleus ” ) at the moment. Production has been fair this year.

  2. I have a lot of naturally flowering plants on my land. I know almost all of them, and what time to expect them throughout the year. I have planted early perennials to supplement the wild flowers and do typically wait to mow. I also have several birdfeeders of different types, both seed and nectar. I keep them in he same spots year after year, and my birds know where they are and bring their friends! I dont weed my flower gardens much- I have a rule that if it flowers, it stays. As a result, wild honeysuckle, daisies and others bloom close to my food gardens, and the vectors dont have to work as hard to find food.

    1. Sounds like you’re on top of things! My problem is the city has rules about what I can grow on my land. Many useful native flowers are actually considered noxious weeds and the city will fine me if I don’t remove them. Bureaucrats can be such a pain! I have to keep my yarrow, sorrel, and borage down to a dull roar because of it. Hopefully they’ll be happier with the flowers I bought-blood root, cardinal flower, lobelia, and liatris. I also have calamint and roses, and I don’t mow my lawn until I absolutely have to. My neighbors don’t like my yard much but the bees do. LOL

  3. Great article. As a beekeeper myself I never use pesticides. Insects and disease only attack plants that are unhealthy. Most plants are unhealthy because they are grown in mineral depleted soil. Re-mineralize your soil.

    As for controlling varroa mites I notice you didn’t mention oxalic acid. It’s an organic acid that melts the mites suction cup feet and they fall off the bees and die. It has no ill effect on the bees and is naturally occurring in honey as well as more than a few plants. Here’s a link to my site’s FAQ for more information. Every prepper should have bees and one of my MiteBlasters to keep them alive. Make sure they always have food stored and treat them for mites twice a year and they’ll be fine.

    https://miteblaster.com/faq

    1. Interesting! One of my raised beds has completely new soil, organic at that, and I still have Septoria on my tomatoes. Are there any particular minerals you would suggest adding? Is there a product you like especially well?

      1. I used a product called azomite I got off ebay. It’s mined in Utah from a ancient volcanic seabed of something and contains like 71 minerals and elements. I just started using it this year and my tomatoes did great this year and I didn’t have ANY hornworms. (never had that happen). Rock dust from quarries can be used too. Do a search on “soil re-mineralization”

        1. Thank you! I am looking into that and will give it a try. I’ve been surprised to learn over the past couple of years just how little in the way of nutrients that many soils, especially commercial potting soils, really have. My favorite container soil isn’t even soil at all! It’s bark fines and coir, and the nutrient they advertise adding is a necessity or nothing would grow in it. Crazy! Garden and learn, right?

    1. A quick search turns up both yes and no answers. Perhaps the beekeepers on this thread could chime in, or check with one of the beekeeping societies.

  4. Plant flowers. Leave the dandelions (first good in the spring). There is even a tall weed with bright yellow flowers that we leave because they are a bee magnet.

    I have a large vegetable garden, and encourage our little visitors. This has been a great year for bees in other garden.

    1. Flowers yes, but it’s best to plant those native to your area. Your bee species will be adapted to them. Nonnatives are less likely to be what your bees are needing.

      I wonder if I have the same weed, tall with bright yellow flowers? It is indeed a bee magnet! In my yard I also have wood violets in spring, locally aka creeping Charlie. I think they’re lovely and leave them as long as I can! Wood violets are actually edible and of course, the city doesn’t like them. Some of my neighbors don’t either, and will poison their lawns to get rid of them. Personally I’d like to get rid on my lawn! Who needs grass, which serves no purpose and feeds no one?

  5. been beekeeping for decades. And yes some years I lose over 50%. this year has been an exception not only have I had good healthy hives but many of my empty boxes had Rogue hives show up and take up residence plus every year I’m able to get three to four divisions out of the large hives. There’s one other thing I’ve noticed that affects bees radio frequencies propagated by cell phone towers and apparently worse with 5G. I have custom hives that screen out most radio frequencies. Also this year although all hives are healthy the beasts have been somewhat lethargic hanging around the hives instead of out foraging. No apparent reason, but I find it odd.

  6. My local honey bees love oregano and the bumblebees love sage. You forgot to mention water, our flying friends need access to water. My small front yard fountain swarms with honeybees all day long, but there has to be a way for the bees to get to the water like kiddie steps in a swimming pool. Check out https://utopia.org/guide/diy-bee-waterer/ and https://backyardbeekeeping.iamcountryside.com/health-pests/creating-the-best-water-sources-for-bees/ for bee watering holes. Where I live, my neighbors have bee hives and they come to my place for water and pollin. I also plant various flowers to help the pollinator population. Ray has the right idea and a person needs to space out the plantings so that the proper plants are available at the right time all season long. And, it goes without saying, the sprays have to go.

    When I lived in the big valley in Central California, I noticed that the farmers were spraying all of the time; Farmer A would spray and Farmer B would spray and then Farmer C would spray and then they would start over again. It seem like the sprays were in the air 24/7 all year long and, as a result, there was a big shortage of many of the local pollinators. Another problem in the valley situation was that local towns on the edge of the farming areas have residents who have no grasp on how much poison to use and the residential overspray is far worse than the farm sprayers; the cost of sprays limits the farmers from using much more that they need to.

    Off the subject, but on the historical side, in the late 1800s, John Law Reed and his brother William Reed dry farmed over 35,000 acres of wheat with no sprays. They shipped the largest amount (reportedly) out of the
    Reed-owned warehouses in Reedley (near Fresno, California) than any other shipper in the USA. Now, Reedley is entitled, “The fruit capital of the world,” (or used to be – the drought has changed things), primarily because of the former access that they had to massive amounts of irrigation water from the dams in the mountains. The former ‘largest’ fresh water lake in the USA, Tulare Lake, which was a basin for a number of southern Sierra Nevada streams.

    Inhabited for thousands of years by the Yokuts and other native groups, the Kings River basin once fed a vast network of seasonal wetlands around Tulare Lake that supported millions of waterfowl, fish, and game animals, in turn providing sustenance for indigenous peoples. Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake in the western U.S., at the middle of an endorheic basin also fed by the Kaweah, Tule and Kern Rivers. The river was named by Gabriel Moraga, the commander of a Spanish military expedition in 1806, but it was not until California became a U.S. state in 1850 that many Europeans arrived and settled along the Kings River, driving out the area’s original inhabitants. Logging and livestock grazing inflicted significant environmental damage on the upper parts of the river system, before the federal government moved to establish national parks and preserves there.

    1. Thanks for mentioning water, and for the links, and the history! Very cool! It sounds like a few of those valley people need to read Silent Spring. All of that spray in the air can’t be good for the people either. Yikes!

  7. Try this again the last post didn’t happen been keeping bees for decades. And yes some years like last I have big losses. Most of the time I’m able to divide my colonies two to three times a season which helps cover the losses. This year I’ve had none. In fact I even had some wild hives show up. And for the past 2 months all available boxes are full.
    I would add one more to the list troubles. I’ve had in the past noticed that higher levels of radio frequency’s like from cell phone towers for one, bees seem to do much more poorly. So I started constructing custom beehives to help screen much of this radio frequencys. This year despite have a big success with the bees for whatever reason there are a little more lethargic than normal. And prefer to hang around the hives instead of out foraging. Curious to say the least. Bees have been around for around over 130,000,000 years. That’s surviving many planet catastrophes from asteroid impacts to volcanic winners, and the Ice Age. It seems they know what’s up.
    I have a safe haven to move my hives to just in case. It looks like cave. LOL I also have stored pollen and honey to help Ensure the survival of many small hives to help keep the gene pool healthy.

  8. Greetings, I travel a lot for work and I feel the biggest threat facing Honeybees are roadways. Most beekeepers are only allowed to place their colonies near highways resulting in major losses as the bees try to fly across roads to get to flowering plants and are hit by vehicles.

  9. Fruit trees will do double duty for you…provide a place for your honeybees to pollinate and gather nectar and a provision of fruit at harvest.

  10. I put out a mason bee house this year for the first time. I’ve got leaf cutters, masons and others. We will see if I can effectively over winter them. I always have marigolds in the garden. I leave a portion of my yard to grow in the spring with wild violets and dandelions. Violet flowers make a wonderful jelly!

  11. I saw THREE honey bees in 2019,then I only saw ONE honey bee in 2020,and NOT a one in 2021,the county has stepped up spraying for mosquito’s MOST americans are to stupid to understand DRAGON FLYS EAT mosquito’s,when you kill them,YOU also killed the rest of the food chain,SO STARVE TO DEATH IDIOTS….no bugs ,NO FOOD…you got what you wanted…

    1. Unfortunately the rest of us will pay with them if we don’t at least try to provide a better habitat. I’d complain to my county at least.

  12. 4th try
    No one keeps bees here. Everone that has tried has lost them the first winter. I’d love to try bees but I’m hesitant because of the expense getting started and not knowing why everyone who tried bees lost them so quickly. Was it cold? Food or water? Mites?

    40 yearsago we had lots of wild honey bees. My fruit trees would hum there were so many.
    Very few come now. We’re not a big agricultural area so no spraying. I don’t use pesticides. I keep glass lids of water in scattered beds for any bees that do come. I plant flowers in all the garden beds plus flower along the driveways and a patch of wildflowers and grasses that I keep untouched.
    Its been a slow years for most of the garden. I’m just begining to get a few ripe tomatoes and summer squash. I’ve had a handfull of green beans and my little patches of peas are producing nicely. No beets, turnips, corn, several things didn’t seem to come up at all. Odd year. I usually have a great garden

    1. Do you have other insects there? Bees aren’t the only pollinators, as you likely know. But no insects at all would seem to point to a larger problem. Valley sprays rising perhaps? Jet streams containing jet fuel?

    1. You’re welcome! I’m glad it’s useful. Thanks for the ID link. Another resource would be your county’s Extension office and any local bee keepers. They can help you plan your plantings to help.

  13. Why have you not included the devastating effects of EMFs, namely 4G & 5G on bees?
    These reduce the health of the hive and that’s what allows the veroa mite to take hold.
    Insects have such small bodies the EMF exposure is damaging to all of them.
    Bees disappear from the cities first..where the EMF exposure is greatest.

    1. Thank you for bringing it up. If I included every single threat to every single species, this article would take up volumes. Also, the problems I’ve highlighted are actionable things. There’s not much we can do about EMFs. There’s plenty we can do about pesticides, mites, and habitat loss.

  14. Not to downplay the impact of pesticides and pests, another threat to honey bees is a marked reduction of the use of honey as a sweetener. Less honey consumption, less need for honey-producing hives, ergo fewer honey bees. HFCS is bad in so many ways, and this is one of them, with processed cane and beet sugar bringing up the rear of the problem.

    If you can use honey, use it. If you can keep your own bees to produce it, even better.

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