February 17, 2022
Next time you’re outside, take some time to observe a flower. Chances are, you’ll see insect pollinators hard at work. These small creatures are often overlooked, but they are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems. As the impacts of climate change and other environmental challenges are being felt all over the world, insect pollinators are facing multiple threats.
One species that has experienced a crippling decline in recent years is the monarch butterfly. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reports that the western monarch population overwintering in California has dwindled from approximately 4.5 million in the 1980s to approximately 29,000 in 2019—that’s a decline of over 99%! Xerces also says that “the projected threshold for quasi-extinction of western monarchs is 30,000 individuals.” This population decrease is primarily due to climate change; pesticides; disease; and breeding, migration, and overwintering habitat loss.
Many of North America’s bumble bees are also in decline, and for similar reasons as monarchs. According to the Xerces Society, “more than one quarter (28%) of all North American bumble bees are facing some degree of extinction risk.” It is more imperative than ever for us to consider why these iconic pollinators are so important and what we can do to help them.
Why Do Insect Pollinators Matter?
Insect pollinators of many kinds pollinate plants using specially adapted bodies and behaviors. These adaptations vary from species to species, but it is clear that the special relationship between insects and plants has evolved over millions of years.
A monarch depends on milkweed to complete its life cycle. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and they live on milkweed during their larval and chrysalis stages of development. Once they are adults, monarchs feed from many nectar-producing plants, which means they pollinate many types of flowers.
Bumble bees perform buzz pollination, which is a highly effective way to pollinate plants. They are generalist foragers, meaning that they pollinate many kinds of flowers and agricultural crops. These qualities make bumble bees essential pollinators.
Three quarters of our major food crops depend on pollinators! The theme of the National Association of Conservation Districts’ recent Stewardship Week (April 26–May 3, 2020) was “Where Would We Bee Without Pollinators?” The NACD stated:
We can thank pollinators for one in three mouthfuls of food and drink—everything from coffee and chocolate to most fruits and many vegetables in our diet. Pollination is also critical for many of the animal products we consume, including dairy products, beef, pork, and poultry. These animals consume insect-pollinated legumes such as alfalfa and clover at some time during their growth. When we start to think about what we ate yesterday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we start to understand the importance of pollinators….
Furthermore, insect pollinators serve as a food source for wildlife. That’s a lot of contributions for such small creatures!
What Can We Do to Help Insect Pollinators?
You can also check out the Western Milkweed Species profiles and the Nectar and Milkweed Guides on the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper site for more information. You can find additional information about which species to plant and which nurseries carry milkweed here. Learn about how to create bumble bee habitat here.
Now that you have information and tools to help them, you can lend monarchs, bumble bees, and other pollinators a helping hand.