Musings on the complicated topic of native pollinators, food production, and climate change
Our native pollinators were slow to emerge this year in the San Juans because of the cool weather. Usually, we can rely on flies, solitary bees and wasps, and even moths, ants, and others to pollinate our fruit trees. I did see some species of flies out this spring, but again, weather conditions were poor.
We have PLENTY of “pollinators” out in our yard right now. So, in trying to explain to people when they ask me about a decline in native pollinators, I have a few points I like to throw out for consideration.
1) honey bees are poor pollinators to keep on the island. It has to be above 50 degrees for them to come out of the hive.
2) native flies and other insects like moths (which fly at night and we don’t typically see) are better at pollinating in cooler temperatures. While they also won’t be out if it’s rainy and super cold, they can fly in temperature ranges lower than 50 degrees F.
3) the critical importance of native pollinators may not be in their “pollination” services – but their role as pest predators and/or role in the food cycle for other organisms, and for creating biodiversity in our ecosystem, which helps keep everything healthier. I think this part is important. If you look at some of the plants we put in our gardens (native perennials), they actually do not require pollination to survive and reproduce, but do offer pollen and nectar to many insects, spiders, and hummingbirds. Looking further at the food web, we need a variety of native insects for more than pollination. Tachinid flies, syrphid flies, solitary wasps, ants, and even spiders can be pollinators, but also help regulate populations of orchard, garden, and forest pests.
My take on all of this is as humans, our focus has largely been on how to grow food over environmental conservation and maintaining balanced, functioning ecosystems. With climate change, many of our food growing operations may fail. Our fruit trees (at least none that I know of) are not native. In spite of the best intentions, conditions may decline to a point where we can’t produce great fruit here. Weather is only one limiting factor. We have poor soils or no soil in many locations, limited water resources, and the pressures of continuing development resulting in loss of natural habitats. I don’t have the answers for you when it comes to fruit production or any way to personally mitigate climate change, so we may have to figure out a substitute for growing apples, plums, and such.
Let’s go back to the importance of native pollinators though. If you think of our island as a living organism with many different functions, it is important to have all the essential pieces to keep the “body” healthy. These native pollinators (and the native plants they visit), and all the other myriad species of invertebrates, fungi, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, soil, water, etc. are all part of the “body,” a body that has to fight off occasional or repeated assaults from being thrown off balance by exposures to external forces. Just like we need a variety of foods and minerals and other things to keep our body healthy, so does an ecosystem. We need all of these pieces (and that includes our native pollinators and all the other diverse species) to keep our island home healthy.
As to the fruit trees and other food crops requiring pollination, for now, some of these issues can be mediated by planting around your orchard and garden with plenty of diverse native species and providing habitat for all of these native species to develop. Some of our practices of cleaning and sanitizing our orchards and gardens, burning yard clippings, and applying fertilizers and pesticides can adversely affect the biodiversity needed to help our food production thrive.
I imagine it can be frustrating to see an orchard fail to produce fruit. My grandparents were tenant farmers and wholly dependent on growing cotton and corn and the bit of garden and livestock they had around the home on the property they did not own. When it was a drought year, and crops failed, things were utterly miserable. Destitute would be a better adjective. I believe we may have an inherent desire to be “part of the land,” and grow our own food, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, conditions aren’t favorable. Crops fail. Historically, we have tried (and failed) to control some of these external forces – like applying pesticides in amounts that probably will poison us forever.
I’ve gone way beyond the “pollinator” topic here, but it is next to impossible for me to see a one-dimensional issue. We have a much larger and more complex picture before us. How do we either re-create or maintain a healthy functioning system, navigate the perils of climate change, and feed ourselves? I like to believe that protecting diversity in our ecosystems is an important facet of this complex, multi-layered crisis we face.
Resources and Further Reading
Washington Native Plant Society – https://www.wnps.org
Xerces Society – http://www.xerces.org
WSU Extension Master Gardeners of San Juan County – https://extension.wsu.edu/sanjuan/master-gardeners/