by Whit Gibbons

April 29, 2007

Last fall, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia submitted U.S. Senate Resolution 580, which recognizes "the importance of pollinators to ecosystem health and agriculture in the United States and the value of partnership efforts to increase awareness about pollinators and support for protecting and sustaining pollinators by designating June 24 through June 30, 2007, as National Pollinator Week." The Senate had the wisdom to approve the resolution.

For Congress to spend time on such an issue may, at first, seem frivolous. But consider this: if pollination were to diminish or cease completely, the results would be disastrous for everyone who consumes food. Pollinators are an essential element of the environmental framework of which we are a part and upon which we all depend. For our national representatives to acknowledge this reality is hardly frivolous.

The Senate resolution refers to a Web site (www.pollinator.org) as a source for pollinator information. The Pollinator Partnership asserts that "pollinators are essential to life." For life as we know it, this is absolutely true. Pollination of native plants and agricultural crops is one of those critical biological services that we simply take for granted because it is taken care of at no cost to us. More than three-fourths of the world's crop plants depend on pollination by flying animals to produce seeds or fruit. According to the resolution, "pollinators help to produce an estimated 1 out of every 3 bites of food consumed in the United States."

Who are these important creatures that assume the key role of moving pollen from one flower to another? In addition to the bee, wasp, and butterfly pollinators we are accustomed to, beetles, flies, and mosquitoes are also important. Although we may think of hummingbirds as backyard visitors that drink nectar from hanging containers, in fact, they are also significant pollinators. Some flowers in the western United States and American tropics are dependent on hummingbird pollinators for their propagation; they are not found in regions where hummingbirds are absent. And in the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro cacti are pollinated by bats at night.

In addition to the vital role pollination plays in producing the vegetative landscapes we are familiar with and providing most of the food we eat, economic considerations are also substantial. For example, according to the resolution, "animal pollinators generate significant income for agricultural producers, with domestic honeybees alone pollinating" more than $14 billion worth of crops each year in the United States. The resolution also considers what would happen if the size and general health of populations of pollinators were to decline on a national or international scale. It should be viewed as "a significant threat to global food webs, the integrity of biodiversity, and human health." Clearly, it is in the best interest of all of us for healthy populations of pollinators to remain with us.

One ingredient is missing from the Senate resolution about the importance of pollinators and their healthy persistence in the ecosystem: What should we do, or not do, to ensure that pollinating insects and flying vertebrates remain with us? That information is available on the pollinator Web site. "Due to biodiversity threats such as land development, pollution, and pesticide poisoning, we are losing pollinators around the world at an alarming rate." So we need to limit development, curb pollution, and curtail pesticide use. Ironically, the very pesticides that are viewed by some as essential to our agricultural economy are also considered to be the culprit in the decline of some of the insects necessary for pollination.

The pollinator Web site, sponsored by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign and the Coevolution Institute, is a valuable environmental resource. It answers some frequently asked questions at the “What Is Pollination?” link, helps develop public awareness of just how fragile our connections are to the world's ecosystems, and emphasizes the importance of ecologists who are working to understand pollination systems.

The underlying message of the Web site and the Senate resolution is clear. If even small, flying insects are essential for us to live on earth, we should value and preserve every part of our environment.

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