the farm

Pollinators 101: What Are Pollinators and Why Do They Matter?

Published on June 07, 2017

In celebration of National Pollinator Week June 19-25, we are publishing a series of blogs that highlight our efforts to protect the creatures that help pollinate plants, and we are sharing details about how you can actively play a role in the future of pollinator health - and the future of our food and medicine.

In our region of Western North Carolina, both Asheville and Hendersonville have been designated Bee Cities, which are municipalities "making an impact in protecting pollinators by raising awareness, establishing and enhancing habitats, and celebrating the achievements of the volunteers leading the effort." Hendersonville has also declared June to be Pollinator Month.

When we're caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life, it's easy to lose sight of our connection to nature. After all, many of us rarely have a moment to ourselves, let alone to consider the fate of some of nature's smallest yet hardest-working creatures. But, just because we don't notice that ancient and profound connection doesn't mean it has disappeared. Every day, in countless ways, the important work of pollinators allows us to live healthier, happier lives. Consider these ways that pollinators might impact even an hour of your day:

You wake and open the window, inhaling the scent of the roses growing in your backyard. You brew a cup of your favorite Fair Trade organic coffee. You make a bowl of granola with slivered almonds and blueberries from your CSA share, then drizzle on a bit of local wildflower honey.

By the time you've finished breakfast, you've had a several encounters with the work of pollinators. Beyond honey, of course, and your backyard roses, which you might already have known were pollinated, your coffee, almonds and blueberries were all produced with the help of pollinators.

Without pollinators, a lot of our favorite foods - and many of the herbs we use in our products - would cease to exist or would become prohibitively expensive to cultivate. Consider a world without coffee for a moment. Pollinators are being threatened every day around the world.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding seven types of Hawaiian bees to the federal list of endangered and threatened species last year, and, in March 2017, the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) became the first bumblebee to be officially declared endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Monarch butterfly on red flower

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), another commonly known pollinator, migrate each year from the U.S. and southern Canada to central Mexico - that's more than 3,000 miles. In 2004, more than half a billion (550 million) of these vibrant orange and black butterflies completed that long migration; just nine years later, they decreased by 94 percent, to 33 million. Loss of habitat due to deforestation and extreme weather (due to climate change) are to blame, as is the widespread use of pesticides by American farmers using conventional methods.

Each year, the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration of agriculture and science research labs dedicated to trying to better understand honeybee declines in the United States, surveys beekeepers. This year's survey, which spanned April 2016 through March 2017, saw a decline of 33 percent of beehives. While losing one in three hives is still both sad and economically hard on beekeepers, that number may be a sign of hope, as it's the second lowest rate of annual colony loss recorded since 2010 (the survey began in 2006).

Pollinators are the unsung heroes of the natural world, doing good work to sustain not only themselves but all the creatures that partake of the flowering plants they pollinate. Before we further investigate our inextricable relationship with pollinators, let's get to know these small but mighty allies a bit better.

What are Pollinators?

In short, pollinators help plants. Pollinators are any animal or insect that causes plants to make fruit or seeds, by moving pollen - the dusty grains that carry the male parts of a plant - so that reproduction may occur. Beyond the common bumblebees and butterflies, other pollinators include ants, birds (especially hummingbirds), bees, bats, moths and beetles. To pollinate a plant, a pollinator must actually touch the plant. Pollinators like hummingbirds, bees and butterflies use flowering plants for food, while spiders, flies and wasps use flowering plants as hiding places.

Bee pollinating on lavender

Bees are by far the largest group of pollinators, with more than 16,000 species. They've been called the "workhorses of agricultural pollination" and were imported from Europe in the 17th century. Today there are nearly 4,000 species of bees in the U.S.

Flowering plants, or angiosperms "represent the largest and most diverse lineage of vascular plants on earth," with more than a quarter million species worldwide! Some estimates say that more than 200,000 species of animals and insects are pollinators, including about 1,000 species of vertebrate pollinators. That's a lot of helpers, so you can imagine what kind of impact their disappearance or decline would cause.

Why are Pollinators Important?

Pollinators do work that we can't do. We need them because we need to eat. And while we could live without some of the plants they pollinate, such as chocolate and coffee, would you want to live like that? As we mentioned earlier, there are 250,000 flowering plants on Earth; about three of every four of those species can't go it alone. They need pollinators.

About one-third of all plants used for foods and beverages rely on pollinators, which means $20 billion of products each year just in the U.S.

What are Some Common Pollinated Foods?

There are quite literally hundreds of foods we eat on a regular basis that require pollination. One in three bites of food we take are due to pollinators. Beyond the ones we've already mentioned, some other foods that are plants for pollinators are:
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Cashews
  • Cranberries
  • Mangos
  • Peaches
  • Pumpkins
  • Sesame
  • Tomatoes

Think of your favorite meal. Chances are, at least a few if not all ingredients are thanks to pollinators.

Why Gaia Cares

The herbs we grow on our farm and that we use in our products rely on pollinators. Echinacea, Vervain, Valerian, Ashwagandha, Holy Basil - you name it. They all rely on pollinators in one way or another. Without pollinators, we could not produce our pure and potent herbal supplements, nor could we sustain the organic fruits and vegetables we provide our employees as a free benefit.

Beyond that, Gaia was founded on the principle of doing right by plants and people, always honoring the wisdom of nature. Nature understands that we are all connected, and we believe that those of us who can speak up must protect those who can't - like pollinators.

Pollinator bee around flowers

Gaia has always employed organic farming practices, and our 350 acres in Western North Carolina are Certified Organic not just to do right by those who take our products - it's also to do right by Gaia herself and all creatures that live on this planet with us. One bee, one butterfly, one beetle might seem insignificant, but consider the larger role they play. They deserve our protection as much as something higher up the food chain because this is home for us all.

One of the biggest threats to pollinators is the use of pesticides. At Gaia, we're able to provide pesticide-free food 350 acres for our pollinator species, which is extremely beneficial. Since we're not using any insecticides at all, we encourage pollinators on our farm.

To actively support pollinators, Gaia maintains beehives on the farm (and we'll share more about these beloved pollinators in an upcoming blog). Bees don't just provide honey, though ours is beloved and delicious. They provide a chance for more fertility of our plant material. And, since organic farms require some type of integrated pest management program in lieu of insecticides, that's another way to support pollinators.

Protecting pollinators is a core value at Gaia, and we look forward to sharing more about these vital beings - as well as ways you can help them.

National Pollinator Week was designated in 2007 by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior as a way to address "the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations." According to The Pollinator Partnership, "Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles."