The health of our global garden hangs upon the health and vitality of bees and other key pollinators. Over the last few years wild bees have been disappearing from all the most important farmlands in the United States: California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s corn belt, and the Mississippi River valley. In fact, pollinators globally are under existential threat, struggling to survive as habitats are destroyed, systemic pesticides are applied to crops, and climate change throws off once-reliable weather patterns.
In the U.S., new legislation has been introduced that could give these essential insects a measure of life support. Introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the bill increases funding and improves cooperation among federal agencies supporting pollinator health. It also sets goals for the USDA and other agencies of conserving, restoring, or enhancing 3 million acres of forage habitat — i.e. fields of flowering plants and shrubs — a step towards the goal of 7 million acres of pollinator habitat set by the White House in 2014. It would also create more financial incentives for farmers to plant bee-friendly plants — including wildflowers, sunflowers, buckwheat, and native grasses — and using natural predators, instead of pesticides, to ward off pests.
Pollinators play an essential role in human food production. Roughly 75 percent of global food crops depend on pollination, and $235–$577 billion worth of these crops are affected by pollinators every year. Some crops depend on highly specialized pollinators, and would cease to exist without them: The chocolate midge, for instance, is the only insect that can pollinate the cacao plant.
In the United States, much of the pollination of commercial crops is done by honeybees, which are trucked around the country to pollinate crops such as cauliflower, broccoli, raspberries, and almonds. But honeybees have suffered devastating losses over the last several years: U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016. These losses were higher even than the roughly 20% average that beekeepers said was environmentally and economically viable. Scientists blame multiple causes for these huge losses including pesticides (notably neonicotinoids), as well as the varroa mite, and the lack of healthy foraging ground.