By LYNN BETTS
Pollinator experts say cut an apple in half horizontally to see why you should care about pollinator conservation. If you see two seeds inside each of the five points of the apple's star, it was completely pollinated. If there are fewer than 10 seeds, not enough pollen reached the flower's stigma to develop all the seeds, and that apple could be small and lopsided. And, of course, you wouldn't be holding an apple at all if the flower wasn't pollinated.
It's estimated that 85% of the flowering plants on the Earth rely on pollinators to some degree to set seed or fruit. "Everything from apples to almonds to alfalfa and oranges to carrots result from pollination," says Mace Vaughan, a pollinator specialist with the Xerces Society and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, Oregon. "So do cotton, cranberries and sunflowers. Total up the value of insect-pollinated crops in the U.S. in a single year, and you could get as much as $27 billion."
But the native bees, butterflies, birds, bats, flies, and moths that provide this service are disappearing, he says. Honey beekeepers lose unprecedented numbers of their honey bee colonies each year, and once-common bumble bees are disappearing across North America. Scientists say a combination of loss of habitat, pests and diseases, and careless or wholesale use of insecticides and herbicides are mostly to blame.
"That doesn't have to happen," Vaughan says. "There are a number of simple and inexpensive actions a landowner can take to protect and provide food and shelter for bees - the single most important pollinators - and now you can get technical and financial assistance from USDA to do it," Vaughan says.
He says the EQIP, WHIP, WRP, and Grasslands Reserve Programs are among those that can help landowners establish pollinator-friendly plantings. "The 2008 Farm Bill placed a new emphasis on pollinators, and you should talk to your local conservationist about what you can do on your land," Vaughan says.
In general, Vaughan says you should look for areas on your farm that can support native bees, and once you know where they are living and foraging, do what you can to protect the plants in those areas from disturbance and pesticides. You can also add flowering plants, leave areas untilled, and make bee blocks to help the native bees on your farm.
"Bees eat only pollen and nectar, so they need blooming plants known to support bees nearby throughout the growing season," Vaughan says. "They also need a place to nest, which can be in the ground or in wood such as dead trees. If you can satisfy those requirements for them in areas near your crops, and protect those areas from insecticides, which are deadly to bees, you could see a bounce in yields for pollination-dependent crops."
Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.