Honeybees and 4 other species we desperately need to save

Honeybees are sort of like the pandas of the pollinator conservation world—everyone’s fixated on them because they’re beautiful and compelling in a sort of strange way, but they’re not the only game in town. We may be approaching the solution to the problem of colony collapse disorder from the wrong angle, even as the White House announces a national strategy to tackle the issue.

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The question may not be not just how we can save honeybees—some of the most critical pollinators in the world—but how we can promote the growth and development of other pollinating species at the same time.

Cross-pollination like that performed by honeybees is vital for crop survival. The Natural Resources Defense Council notes that 30 percent of crops grown worldwide need cross-pollination to thrive, and the statistics are even more critical for wild plants—90 percent of species need the services of bees and other creatures to survive. In the United States alone, bees are credited with a nearly $15 billion to the economy through their yeomanly service in the fields.

Which pollinators are the most important, and how can we protect not just the economy, but our very survival?

1) Honeybees

These tiny insects are among the most critical for crop survival, which is why they’re getting an outsized amount of attention, especially online, where they even have their own Twitter hashtag.

The trouble with bees is that colony collapse disorder has been devastating their populations, and despite extensive research, scientists aren’t really sure why. Abuse of pesticides is one possible culprit, with a class of plant treatments known as neonicotinoids being of particular concern. A rise in pathogens like fungi and bacteria is another possible cause, along with introduced species. According to the EPA, however, CCD is on the decline—while it still dominates fear-mongering headlines, the problems facing bees have moved on.

Researchers and the public are floating solutions for protecting declining honeybee populations, from the sensible to the absurd. Controlling the use of pesticides, using companion planting to attract bees, and creating protections around hives are examples of potentially low-cost, high-benefit approaches to the problem.

2) The Real Bees of Atlanta (and elsewhere)

Honeybees eat all the headlines, but as Gwen Pearson points out at Wired, they’re not the bees you’re looking for, and they’re not the ones that should be a primary point of concern. As a domesticated species raised all over the world, honeybees are unlikely to face extinction, even as individual hives struggle for survival.

“The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America,” she writes, “most of which are solitary, stingless, ground-nesting bees you’ve never heard of. Incredible losses in native bee diversity are already happening.”

If you want to impress your friends with hipster conservation, tell them that you care about bees so obscure that they’ve probably never heard of them. Research suggests, she explains, that wild bee populations appear much more sensitive to pesticides and plant treatments—which means these fragile pollinators are being eliminated at an alarming rate. 

And we know next to nothing about what’s killing them and how to protect them.

3) Birds

The birds and the bees are about more than awkward conversations with your parents. A huge range of bird species—especially hummingbirds and honey eaters (who, contrary to their name, eat nectar, not honey)—play a critical role in pollination. These birds have special adaptations to help them access nectar buried deep within flowering plants, and they have a symbiotic relationship with their food sources—on their way out of the nectar bar, they take some pollen with them, carrying it with them as they flit to the next source of food.

However, birds are facing numerous challenges around the world. One is the phenomenon of habitat fragmentation, where formerly contiguous habitats are being broken into chunks as a result of development and poor environmental policy. This makes it challenging for birds to nest, find food, and breed—all of which leads to declines in pollinating bird species.

Like other sensitive animal populations, birds are also victims of pollution. The proverbial canaries in the coal mine are especially vulnerable when they’re highly unusual species who evolved alongside unique plants in a highly specific relationship. If the bird or plant species dies off, so does its companion. This phenomenon is especially common on islands and in other remote areas where divergent evolution has led to the rise of very unusual species limited to an extremely small area.

4) Butterflies

The president’s proposal for addressing declines in pollinators includes monarch butterflies with good reason—these handsome representatives of the butterfly community are significant pollinators. Like bees, they are extremely sensitive to pesticides, and like birds, they also suffer from habitat fragmentation and problems associated with development. Migratory butterflies like monarchs rely on sources of food at both ends of their migration and along the way, and when their migration is disrupted, so are the crops along the way.

Those migrations are classified as “endangered biological phenomena” thanks to the fact that butterflies are struggling to get from Point A to Point B. The United States Department of Agriculture highlights the concern with butterfly species across the U.S.:

More than 700 species of native butterflies exist in North America. Butterflies, like all pollinators, are closely linked to their environments, such that drastic changes in the ecosystem can be devastating to localized populations or species.

Like birds, butterflies have evolved to work closely with familiar plants. Development isn’t the only thing that threatens habitats, as climate change is contributing to changes in the distribution of plant species, making survival challenging for animals like butterflies.

5) Bats

Insects and birds aren’t the only ones who pollinate. Aside from the absolutely adorable slow loris, which plays an active role in pollination in its native Southeast Asia, bats are also key pollinators for flowering plants across the world. They’re particularly interested in fruits, including a variety of commercially valuable tropical crops—and unfortunately, that interest is precisely what makes them so vulnerable to extinction.

Many bat species are suffering as the surrounding land is cleared for cacao, coffee, and other cash crops, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Tropical fruit plantations are also not necessarily hospitable to bats, as plants may be treated with agricultural chemicals to control pests and promote growth.

Without food supplies and shelter, bats are fleeing in search of new habitats, and the crops that once relied on them for pollination are withering on the tree, stalk, and vine. These creatures of the night are so important in some environments that they’re considered keystone, indicator, or bellwether species, which makes vanishing bats very bad news.

You should be particularly concerned about bats if you enjoy tequila, because bats are the sole pollinators of agave—and you might feel particularly in need of a shot after reviewing the grim statistics on the survival of pollinators around the world.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via Sam Droege/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.