If self-interest is a motivator for conservation action, then protection of pollinators is an issue that everyone can get behind. We have only to look at the food in our cupboards and consider the people who make their living producing it. More generally speaking, it’s also true—without a trace of hyperbole—that those who are fans of life on earth have a common interest in supporting pollinators. With this in mind, Agate is excited to share the insights and ideas from a regional nonprofit, the Pollinator Friendly Alliance, and a conversation with its founder and Executive Director, Laurie Schneider. It turns out that winter is a perfect time to make a positive difference.
Agate: The Pollinator Friendly Alliance (PFA) has a great action list on its website to address the widely documented declines of pollinator species. Can you name a few practices that are especially relevant at this time of year?
Schneider: There are plenty. I know we’re all eager to work on our gardens as soon as possible, but for pollinators it’s a good practice to leave gardens intact until late spring, since many native bees overwinter in stalks until May. It’s also a good time for winter seeding of native and pollinator-friendly plants: PFA will be hosting an event soon related to this, so watch our website. Anyone who is looking ahead to summer landscaping projects may be interested in PFA’s list of plants for pollinators, in particular, the native plants. As the seed catalogs come out, people could take care to choose flower and vegetable seeds that are not pre-treated with neonicotinoids or other systemic pesticides, all of which have been linked to the decline of pollinators. They could also get familiar with common home and garden products that contain these so-called “neonics,” with active ingredients such as acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacliprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam and nitenpyram. If you want to help pollinators, check the labels on products in your garden sheds and avoid using anything that contains these.
Agate: Sounds like a good start. Beyond what we do at home, are there any pollinator-friendly actions people could undertake in their communities that have met with success elsewhere or are especially promising?
Schneider: Yes! You can encourage garden stores not to carry products that include neonics among the active ingredients. You can also organize with neighbors and fellow residents to introduce the idea of a pollinator protection resolution at the local level. For example, in 2014, three Washington County, MN beekeepers joined forces with local citizens out of concern about honey bee losses of more than 50% annually. We passed a pollinator protection resolution in Stillwater that aims to reduce pesticide use, increase habitat, and raise awareness on pollinator conservation strategies. Since then, over fifty Minnesota communities have passed pollinator resolutions. You can find a model resolution on PFA’s website.
Agate: Is there anything particularly unique about our region (Minnesota and the surrounding Great Lakes) that sets it apart regarding the status of pollinators?
Schneider: Bee and pollinator declines correlate with industrial agriculture areas where pesticides including atrazine and neonicotinoids are used more heavily, including the Midwest corn belt and along the Minnesota and Mississippi River Valleys. There is now widespread use of neonicotinoid seed treatments in corn and soybean production despite the fact that studies have shown that, in many cases, this approach does not increase crop yield and provides negligible benefit to farmers. Helping pollinators here will require working hand in hand with agricultural communities and being mindful of their goals as well.
Agate: The honey bee is the poster child of pollinators, or at least the first pollinator that most children learn about. What other species should come to mind when we talk about pollinators?
Schneider: The honey bee, also known as a western honey bee, or Apis millifera, is a well-known pollinator species. Many people are surprised to learn that honey bees, while highly valued and important, are not native to North America. Native wild bees such as the bumble bee and sweat bee actually do the majority of the heavy lifting to pollinate food crops and other flowering plants in the natural world. Some of these are generalists, while others specialize in particular native plant species. And there is so much more to learn; we actually know very little about the status of bees, since only an estimated 3% of bees have been surveyed and accounted for. The at-risk monarch butterfly is another well-known flagship species, and now the rusty patched bumble bee is the first native wild bee in Minnesota to be federally listed as endangered. Bats are prolific pollinators for cocoa, agave, palm, banana and over 300 species of fruit, and are major pollinators of plants in the southwestern U.S. More than 85% of flowering plants on earth require animal pollination. And while we group them as “pollinators,” it’s important to remember the many other critical ecosystem services they provide— for example, a chickadee feeds her clutch over 300 moth or butterfly caterpillars a day.
Agate: Sometimes it helps to put a face to things. Do you have any favorites?
Schneider: One would be the leafcutter bee (genus Megachile). The leafcutter carries pollen under her abdomen, which is a good giveaway to identify them. Females cut perfectly sized pieces of leaves in an oval shape to construct tube nests and to serve as caps for their provisions of pollen and nectar. It’s amazing how they know exactly what size and shape to make these little circular cuts!
Agate: Are there initiatives or events coming up in the near future that people could get involved in, even given the constraints of the pandemic?
Schneider: Sure. People are welcome to check out our events page at the Pollinator Friendly Alliance. In particular, mark your calendars for Mar 2—4, for the Best Practices for Pollinators Summit, a live-streaming online event. Residents of Minnesota can also contact their representatives to voice support for a slate of initiatives that pollinator advocates are proposing to the state legislature this session. These include the following measures designed to protect pollinators:
1. Reverse state pesticide preemption rule to give local communities more control over pesticide use on public and private property. Minnesota state preemption law effectively denies local residents and decision makers their democratic right to better protection when a community decides that minimum pesticide use standards set by state and federal law are insufficient.
2. Provide state incentives to farmers to voluntarily transition from neonicotinoid-treated corn or soybean seed to neonic-free seed. In Minnesota, seed treatments are used on over 90% of corn and roughly half of soy planted in the state. However, numerous scientific studies have shown neonic seed treatments produce little or no improvement in soy and corn crop yields in the Upper Midwest.
3. Insecticide-coated seed to be labeled and regulated as a pesticide in Minnesota. A class of pesticides made up of crop seeds coated with systemic insecticides (“coated seeds”) are not regulated. Seeds comprise a vast majority of systemic insecticide use, where they cause both acute and chronic bee kills, contribute to pollinator decline, pollute soil and water, and harm wildlife, including threatened and endangered invertebrate and bird species.
4. Prohibit use of neonicotinoid insecticides in more protected wildlife areas including parks (local, regional, state), state forest land, Aquatic Management Areas, DNR Scientific and Natural Areas, nature preserves and Wildlife Management Areas.
Agate: Would you describe the plight of pollinators as personal for you?
Schneider: I guess I’d describe the ideals underlying the Pollinator Friendly Alliance as a way of life. Conservation has been integral to my way of life since I was a youngster. My father was an environmental leader working on conservation of Wisconsin rivers and trout streams. As a person who spends much of my time in nature and is intimately aware of the natural world’s cycles, it became painfully clear that species were disappearing, and natural systems were struggling. The pollinator conservation movement is the train I needed to jump on to help save this beautiful natural world we care about so deeply, with all of its attendant biodiversity.
Agate: Thanks for all the good work of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance!
Laurie Schneider is founder and Executive Director of Pollinator Friendly Alliance, a grassroots conservation non-profit. She’s also a professional photographer. When she’s not clicking the shutter, you can find her riding horses and raising bees at her hobby farm in Stillwater, Minnesota. Find more at Pollinatorfriendly.org and Lschneider.com.
Margaret R. Douglas, Paul D Esker, Seth Wechsler, Aimee Code, David J Smith, Claudia Hitaj. Sowing Uncertainty: What We Do and Don’t Know about the Planting of Pesticide-Treated Seed. BioScience, 2020;
Britt E.Erickson. Neonicotinoid pesticides can stay in the US market, EPA says.Chemical & Engineering News, 2020
Ecology-Based Landscapes: A virtual education series for home gardeners and educators, from New Directions in the American Landscape. Jan – March, 2021 (Free and fee-based)
The website of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance also has many additional resources on everything from pollinator-friendly suppliers to cost-share opportunities like the Lawns to Legumes Program.