Thursday, May 28, 2015

Silent Spring: Part 1

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

Bee & Strawberry Blossom
     On May 19, the White House released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a move that has been regarded by many as a groundbreaking step towards acknowledging and mobilizing action around rapidly declining pollinator populations within North America. The importance of setting a national strategy to guide the protection, restoration, and enhancement of pollinator habitats is largely undisputed among scientists and others operating within conservation circles. However, critics have drawn attention to a selection of key considerations that appear to have been left out of the national plan. Primarily, questions surrounding pesticide use—including that of glyphosate (more commonly known as Roundup) and systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids, which have been directly linked to the decline of bee and other wildlife populations—and pesticide mitigation strategies remain untouched.
     This week marks the beginning of a new series in which we will consider the implications that these and other agricultural inputs have had on our environment and the life it supports, examining not only the plight of our crucial pollinator populations, but also that of a variety of other beneficial members of our ecosystem, such as songbirds, moths, butterflies, and insects. Along the way, we will also consider what these inputs mean for human health. In this first article, we begin by looking at pollinators and other “beneficials,” exploring their services and ultimately addressing why we should be concerned about their imperilment. The second and third articles will consider wildlife habitats and the implications wrought by the use of neonicotinoids and glyphosate. Throughout this discussion, we will bring in existing research on these inputs--focusing on a selection of both American and European-led studies. Safety trials and testing will be the focus of the fourth article. After considering the U.S.’s tendency to forego basing its actions on the precautionary principle, we’ll also discuss the extent to which the environmental and health implications of neonicotinoids and glyphosate have been scrutinized. Lastly, in the fifth and final article, we’ll bring everything together and consider the numerous short- and long-term obstacles our North American pollinator and other wildlife populations are facing, as well as examples of localized action (such as Portland’s City Council’s recent success in passing an ordinance banning the use of neonicotinoids) aimed at protecting these vital members of the earth’s environment. By the end of this series, it is our hope that we will have contributed in some way to your understanding of this most pressing issue.
Butterfly & Bee with Echinacea Flower
     The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recognizes pollinators as “an essential part of both productive agriculture and a healthy environment,” and researchers have consistently estimated that two-thirds of the world’s crops depend upon animals for pollination services. Following their initial undertakings in the 1980s (see Southwick and Southwick), efforts aimed at measuring the economic value attached to pollinators have advanced tremendously, resulting in the development of dynamic, highly sophisticated models. Though estimates vary from source to source, researchers largely agree that the annual economic contribution of pollination services measures in the billions. According to the Office of Science and Technology, for example, pollination services provided by honey bees alone contribute an average of US$15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year. Earlier research by Roubik, however, who examined the pollinators of 1,509 cultivated plant species, found that while bees were involved in the pollination of 72.2% of those plant species surveyed, the honey bee only contributed pollination services to 15.5%. This finding suggests that taking into account the pollination services provided by the entire population of native and non-native bees—not just honey bees—would yield a number much larger than US $15 billion.
     In addition to pollination, bees and other wildlife provide an array of beneficial services to the environment and, by extension, to humans. As Nabhan and Buchmann have noted, over the course of any given day these members of our ecosystem “collect and redistribute foodstuffs, then scatter their nitrogen-rich waste products” over the landscape. Insects in particular play a critical role in the biogeochemical cycling of these and other nutrients--aerating the soil, improving tilth, and enhancing water retention capacities. Dung beetles, for instance, have been introduced into agricultural landscapes across parts of Hawaii, Australia, and the southern U.S. due to their valuable contributions to manure decomposition. Meanwhile, bats and birds provide seed dispersal services while also acting as population regulators, consuming multitudes of insects that are often considered pests. Bats in particular have gained an increasing amount of recognition for these services, as interesting research has emerged from the University of Michigan detailing the huge benefit they have had on organic coffee reservations in Mexico. Taking advantage of what is essentially a free service, Harmony Valley Farm maintains a woody barrier of willows in between many of our fields. These willows provide—among other things—a habitat for birds, which then assist us in managing flea beetles and other common agricultural pests. The Xerces Society reports that such integrated pest management techniques have been given a combined value of US $4.5 billion per year. And finally (but by no means exhaustively) these animals also serve as integral parts of various cultures, work to control erosion and regulate climate, and offer myriad opportunities for recreational activities (see Wojcik).
Bee enjoying a melon flower
     While we could write volumes about the importance of these beneficial creatures, this should serve as a basic outline of their crucial role within our food system and within the environment more broadly. As Moisset and Buchmann so poignantly remark, the world we know would cease to exist if it weren’t for the services pollinators and other animals provide. However, many of these invaluable members of the earth’s ecosystem are facing threats at an increasing and expanding rate. Last year alone, beekeepers throughout the U.S. reported losing approximately 40% of their colonies, and in the last 20 years, the North American monarch population has declined by 90%. As Nabham and Buchmann caution, without critically examining and changing our management practices, “we will lose both economically...and ecologically valuable interactions between plants and animals, some of which have taken millennia to develop.” In our next article, we will begin to unpack a few of these management practices that are referred to above—beginning with the emergence, application, and subsequent implications of neonicotinoids on the environment and on wildlife habitat specifically.

Part 2 of the series can be found here:

Sources Used
Code, A. (2015, April 1). Portland bans insecticides linked with pollinator declines. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Retrieved from

Holdren, J.P. (2015, May 19). Announcing new steps to promote pollinator health. Office of Science and Technology. Retrieved from /

Jepsen, S., Schweitzer, D.F., Young, B., Sears, N., Ormes, M., & Hoffman Black, S. (2015, March). Conservation Status and Ecology of the Monarch Butterfly in the United States. Retrieved from

Moisset, B., & Buchmann, S. (2011, March). Bee basics: An Introduction to Our Native bees. Retrieved from /

Nabhan, G.P., & Buchmann, S.L. (1997). Services provided by pollinators. In G.C. Daily (Ed.), Nature’s services: Societal dependence on natural ecosystems (pp. 133-150). Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Southwick, E.E., & Southwick, L. (1989). Estimating the economic value of honey bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) as agricultural pollinators in the United States. Economic Entomology, 85(3), 621-633.

University of Michigan. (2008, April 7). Bats play a major role in plant protection. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from

Wojcik, V. (2013). Pollinators 101. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

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