By Dr. Lisa Wasko DeVetter (Associate Professor of Small Fruit Horticulture) and Dr. Bob Gillespie (retired entomologist)
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
Maurice Maeterlinck, “The Life of the Bee”, published in 1901 (often erroneously attributed to Albert Einstein)
Over 100 years later, the quote above still resonates loudly with truth. We depend on bees and they are linchpins in natural and agricultural systems. Bees as well as other insects are important pollinators that move pollen from flower to flower. While this behavior may seem inconspicuous, we depend on it to produce the bounty of foods important for farming enterprises as well as a nutritious diet. Blueberries, raspberries, apples, tomatoes, and vegetable seed crops are just a handful of examples of plant species that require insects to develop seeds and fruits.
Unfortunately, many insect species including pollinators are declining. Habitat loss, poor nutrition, climate change, pests and pathogens, as well as pesticide exposure are considered to be some of the culprits of pollinator decline. These declines are happening to both managed species, like honey bees, and natives. In order to bring attention to the importance of pollinators as well as educate the community on efforts to help them, we are spearheading a pollinator initiative at WSU NWREC with support from other members within the northwestern Washington community.
One way to help pollinators is through habitat provisioning. Well-crafted habitat for pollinators should provide floral resources (i.e., “food” for pollinators) that bloom from early spring through fall so insects have access to adequate nutrition for their healthy development. In addition, habitat provisioning means safe nesting resources are available for pollinators that dwell on trees, within brush, and in the ground. We have taken the first steps within our initiative of strategic habitat provisioning for pollinators. This was accomplished by establishing a native pollinator habitat at WSU NWREC with plants donated from the Native Plant Society. Our goal is to expand this habitat and become Bee Friendly Farming certified within a few years so we can model and educate the community on how to support pollinators through habitat provisioning.
Another way to help pollinators is to educate the public and agricultural community on their importance. Through education, we can all be made more aware and proactive to help pollinators. The pollinator habitat will be one venue to educate the public on the importance of habitat and how to design a habitat that will benefit pollinators. Recently, we also completed educational signs that will inform visitors at WSU NWREC about pollinators. These beautiful signs were designed with the help of Andrew Mack and in beds around the NWREC main building. We encourage you to visit them, learn, and share what you learned with others.
Workshops are also excellent venues to educate. Last year Dr. Gillespie successfully led a Native Pollinator workshop with the North Cascades Institute. The workshop was done in collaboration with NWREC and will be repeated in 2022. Much of the workshop focuses on species identification, but resources and content on how to support pollinators is also made available.
Washington State University is also providing leadership on pollinator research. Dr. DeVetter has been leading research on improving pollination in blueberry systems in Washington State with an emphasis on honeybees. The Department of Entomology also has renowned researchers dedicated to the topic and is in the process of hiring a Pollinator Health specialist to be based in eastern Washington. While much of the research emphasis has been placed on honeybees due to their importance in agricultural systems, DeVetter has been expanding her program to also include native pollinators given their effectiveness and because they can contribute to improved and more resilient pollination. As information is generated through DeVetter’s research as well as others, it will be blended into our educational efforts for our pollinator initiative.
For those of you reading this article with a fear of bees and their stings, we wanted to end by noting that most bee species do not have painful stings. Therefore, what you can do to support bees and pollinators should hopefully make you “a buzz” with joy for contributing to this important effort and not increase your risk of stings!