It's Time We Talked About the Birds and the Bees

April 1, 2015, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

This striking image shows what  your produce aisle might look like without help from honeybees. CREDIT: Whole Foods MarketThere comes a time when we just have to talk about the facts of life. It’s a talk that is easy to put off — I know I have had a difficult time with this subject. In fact, for many people, it’s one of those topics that is just so difficult that if you put it off long enough, well, you don’t have to talk about it anymore — time has moved on and there is no longer a need to have that uncomfortable discussion. Well, it’s time we had that talk.

Yes, I know it may be difficult and perhaps even uncomfortable for some, but it is time. We simply must have a discussion about the birds and the bees. 

Oh, you thought I meant THAT discussion. No, this discussion is much more important. You see, the birds and the bees are in big trouble and things are getting worse rapidly. 

There is mounting evidence that populations of many species of wildlife worldwide are in serious decline, and losses are being seen in the United States as well. There is special concern regarding the disappearance of certain invertebrates, particularly pollinating insects that have exceptional value to man because of their ecological and economic importance. And there is also growing concern over the loss of well-known and much-loved species of birds as well. 

What’s at Stake?

A growing body of scientific evidence points to a significant loss of biodiversity in the U.S. Recent studies by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have noted not just the decline of endangered and rare bird species, but also the decline of once-common birds of field, farm and woodland. Pollinating insects may be in even bigger trouble than birds.

Darryl Fears, the Washington Post environmental writer, recently reported on findings of the Endangered Species Coalition that highlighted 10 things in nature that might vanish before your kids ever see them. Some of these species could simply be gone before our children and youth ever get a chance to encounter them in nature, including insects such as the monarch butterfly and rusty-patched bumblebees, once among the more common insect species in North America.

The National Audubon Society’s comprehensive report on the decline of bird species across North America identifies 314 species that are at risk due to climate change. Bald eagles may lose much of their summer range, and the Baltimore oriole, symbol of the state of Maryland and the Major League Baseball team of the same name, may no longer be able to nest anywhere within the state. 

The decline of pollinators perhaps can be best demonstrated by this simple fact: One in every three bites of food we take is dependent on pollinators. 

Pollinators are vital to wildlife and ecosystem health, but they also have extraordinary economic importance to American agriculture. The pollinating services of bees and other insects are valued at $24 billion annually in the U.S. alone. The continuing decline of domesticated honeybees, vital to U.S. agriculture, from causes such as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), parasites, diseases and unknown impacts from neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides, is seriously depleting pollinators and leaving large farms and orchards scrambling for viable bee hives. 

The resulting loss of productivity in many crops such as almonds, cashews and other fruits and nuts is having a large impact, while some beekeepers have reported hive losses of 30 percent or more in recent years, a trend that is clearly unsustainable. Whole Foods Market has instituted a Responsibly Grown produce rating system and rates farms on their agricultural practices.

The value of wild pollinators to U.S. crops is estimated at $9 billion per year, but these insects, birds and bats are in almost as much trouble as honeybees. Loss of habitat, urbanization, impacts from nontarget insecticides and other factors are causing significant declines in wild pollinator species as well as domesticated pollinators. 

“People are stunned to learn that there are almost 4,000 species of wild bees in North America,” says Mace Vaughan, co-director of pollinator conservation for the Xerces Society, a national conservation organization focused on invertebrate wildlife species. “And things look grim for wild pollinators,” he continues. “This is a national crisis.” Vaughan says that a shocking number of wild pollinators have been lost in just a short time. “One quarter of bumblebees, the panda bear of bees, are at risk of extinction, some within just a few years.”

There is no one simple explanation of why the diversity of our bird and insect species is in a tailspin. Loss of overall biodiversity is a key factor, and it has been hastened by large-scale industrial agricultural practices, the loss of quality natural habitat and the introduction of neonicotinoids, which have been implicated in the decline of some songbird species, CCD in honeybees and other negative impacts on both birds and bees. The European Union took the unprecedented step of banning all use of neonics for two years till the effects could be studied more closely.

There are other factors that come into play such as the accelerating loss of open space, the increasing urbanization of our landscapes due to the growth of cities and suburbs, fragmentation of forests, loss of wetlands, loss of wildlife habitat corridors, the impact of climate change conditions and still more. 

What Can Be Done?

Just as there is no single cause of the problem, there is no one simple solution that will fix the problem. Long-term solutions are complex, but there are actions that will help, according to Vaughan. “What is amazing is that as soon as you take action to correct the causes of the decline, much can be returned.” 

Paul Baicich, a consultant and author of books and articles about birds, declares, “We can make a difference. It starts in your own backyard and in our own lives.” He urges people to create backyard habitats. 

Colin O’Meara, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the organization that promotes backyard and community wildlife habitats nationwide, says, “Unlike many other environmental conservation crises, we don’t have to wait to take action. Pollinators benefit from each patch of native nectar plants, wherever they are.” 

Baicich points to the shade-grown coffee movement that began more than two decades ago. Through collective purchasing power, conservation organizations encouraged growers and distributors to ensure environmentally sustainable practices by certifying that their coffee was bird-friendly and grown organically in natural forests. Such practices have helped preserve millions of acres of habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds such as warblers, orioles, fly-catchers and other songbirds that migrate to the United States to breed and raise their young each spring.

Another way to reverse the decline is to start buying bird-friendly rice, says Baicich. U.S.-produced rice is grown on about 3 million acres in the U.S., according to Baicich. “It’s the most bird-friendly crop grown in North America,” he says. “Increase your consumption of U.S.-grown rice and you’ll be saving birds in America.”

The Role of Parks

Virtually every expert consulted for this article spoke to the pivotal role of parks in producing real-life solutions that will help solve the challenges facing pollinators. All agree that public education is one of the most important roles that parks can play. 

Additionally, as the largest landowners of public lands in most jurisdictions, park and recreation departments may be one of the most important stewards of natural resources and protectors of biodiversity in the nation. We maintain and manage habitat in exactly the areas that are often at the most risk — in urban cores, developing communities and exurban open spaces. 

Mary Phillips, director of Garden for Wildlife for NWF, says, “Parks are a critical part of the solution” if we hope to reverse trends of declining birds and pollinating insects. “They are uniquely situated to accomplish this. [Parks] help create wildlife corridors that are essential for birds and insects,”she says.

Bruce Barbarasch, superintendent of natural resources and trails management for Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District in Oregon, describes one of his agency’s habitat management projects for pollinators. The Rock Creek Greenway Pollinator Project consists of about 8 acres of land under power line right-of-way adjacent to a regional trail that is set aside and managed for birds, butterflies, bees and bats. Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District engaged the community, held a public meeting and invited volunteers to help with the project. “When you tell the public that you are going to invite butterflies and hummingbirds to your park, people love it,” he says.  

Barbarasch describes how kids from a nearby elementary school who found nesting wild bees in their baseball diamond got engaged. The kids conquered their fear of dealing with the nonbiting wild bees, and eventually named them “tickle bees” for the way they tickled the palms of their hands when they held them. “It’s not a lack of interest in pollinators that people have,” says Barbarasch. “When you show them, they just say, ‘Wow!’”

“I cannot emphasize enough the role that parks can play in demonstrating best practices in pollinator conservation — from formal gardens to wild, weedy places,” says Vaughan. “Parks are essential.”

Well, aren’t you glad we had this talk about the birds and the bees? I sure am.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.