Campus Community

The Pollinators' Gift

Written by Janice Murphy

August 12, 2013

a bee on a pink daisy on campus

A critical link to our food supply is in jeopardy

Late summer brings a fullness of life to the Northwest. Feelings of expansiveness and ease are fostered by our mild, lovely weather. The abundance of fruits and vegetables all around us, whether from our own backyards and p-patches or from local farms, is deliciously evident. We have come to assume that we will naturally, almost magically, be blessed with this bounty and variety to choose from.  

But it would take someone very out of touch not to have heard about the plight of the honey bee, the losses that beekeepers experience year after year from an onslaught of issues. Native pollinators too (bumble bees, mason bees and many smaller species) are declining in numbers from loss of habitat, a higher sensitivity to pesticides and climate destabilization. It’s sometimes hard to connect these facts to the food we eat. But they are, in fact, very intricately linked. 

Pollination is central to life. Many of the foods that add interest and richness to our diet are dependent upon insects for pollination. The Xerces Society recently teamed up with Whole Foods to bring awareness to this fact. Their snapshots of “before and after” at the produce section are a vivid statement of the important work these creatures do.  

“Pollinators are a critical link in our food system," said Eric Mader, assistant pollinator conservation director at The Xerces Society. More than 85 percent of earth’s plant species–many of which compose some of the most nutritional parts of our diet – require pollinators to exist. Yet we continue to see alarming declines in bee numbers.”   

These insects also play a big part in maintaining healthy natural habitats. Pollinators are considered a keystone species group, meaning that their role in an ecosystem is vital to the survival of an expanding web of plants and animals within that system. If the pollinators’ numbers dwindle, the whole system can collapse.   

These facts are distressing and often frustrating. What can we do, as everyday citizens, living in urban and suburban settings? As it turns out, there are some very concrete things that we can do.  

Create habitat. Every time you plant something, you will affect the surrounding environment. Make your choices count in a positive way. Are you going to replace a tree? Why not plant something that attracts honey bees and other pollinators? A Littleleaf Linden tree (Tilia cordata) will provide shade, a beautiful canopy and midsummer blooms that the bees need at this time of year. Have big patch of lawn that you’re ready to remove? A meadow of catmint (Nepeta sp.), coneflower (Echinacea sp.), Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) and ‘Rozanne’ cranesbill (Geranium ‘Rozanne’) will provide a continuous source of food for many species of pollinators. Need a large evergreen shrub? Think about California Lilac (Ceanothus sp.). It comes in all shapes and sizes and provides an early spring source of nectar and pollen for many pollinators.    

As a beekeeper of three years now, I’m attuning myself to the sources of nectar and pollen available at all times of the year. What can I add to my gardens and to the gardens at Seattle University that will increase the food supply for honey bees and all pollinating species?   

Go organic. The recent mass die-off of 25,000 bumble bees in trees at a Target parking lot in Oregon was just the latest in tragic news detailing just how toxic pesticides can be for pollinators. The Neonicotinoid group of pesticides, (imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamthoxam are a few), in addition to being highly toxic to bees, persist in the environment, can translocate to nectar and pollen and affect navigation and foraging activities. Home gardening and lawn care products often contain these pesticides. Check the label and don’t buy it!   

Get active. Advocate for regional and national responsibility when it comes to pesticide regulations. The Xerces Society is a good place to go for information about protecting pollinators. Become a citizen scientist. The Great Sunflower Project celebrates their Great Bee Count on Aug. 17. You can easily participate by counting pollinators in your backyard, at a local park, on a hike. Join the SU grounds crew at the Broadway Community Garden (Broadway and Columbia) at noon on Friday, Aug. 16. We’ll be counting bees on the beautiful sunflowers growing in the p-patch beds.   

And we’ll be celebrating the gifts that spring from the intricate partnership of bees, flowers, plants, soil, water; all the elements of abundant life.