By Bill Duesing
The Act Concerning Pollinator Health, passed by the Connecticut legislature this year and signed into law by the Governor, is important and pioneering legislation. CT NOFA is part of the Safe Grounds Coalition which pushed hard to get this bill passed. Thanks to all our members who testified or contacted their legislators in support of this Act. Special thanks to long-time CT NOFA member and Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station entomologist Kim Stoner. Her expertise from years of studying bees and pesticides informed this law and will be important in the future.
While pollinators are important for many food crops, that is just the beginning their value and importance in ecosystems. And, the pollination services they provide farmers for the few weeks a year fruit trees are flowering or the few months that Cucurbits need pollination are largely just a side effect of the pollinators' desire to sip nectar for much of the year.
What are pollinators? Wikipedia says:
A pollinator is the biotic agent (vector) that moves pollen from the male anthers of a flower to the female stigma of a flower to accomplish fertilization or 'syngamy' of the female gametes in the ovule of the flower by the male gametes from the pollen grain....Insect pollinators include bees, (honey bees, solitary species, bumblebees); pollen wasps (Masarinae); ants; a variety of flies including bee flies and hoverflies; lepidopterans, both butterflies and moths; and flower beetles. Vertebrates, mainly bats and birds, but also some non-bat mammals (monkeys, lemurs, possums, rodents) and some reptiles (lizards and snakes) pollinate certain plants. Among the pollinating birds are hummingbirds, honeyeaters and sunbirds with long beaks; they pollinate a number of deep-throated flowers.
Look for Pollinators
|Goldenrod and asters are important nectar sources for pollinators.|
One of these warm sunny days, find a patch of goldenrod or asters in bloom and look closely at the insects feeding on their flowers. Seems like there are hundreds. Some are so small you can barely see them. Others are over an inch long. There are bees of many kinds (our state is home to 337 species of bees), wasps, flies and more. They're mostly after the nectar (created out of air, water and a few soil minerals using sunlight) but they pick up and spread pollen as they dine.
At other times of year, you'll see pollinators by looking at dandelions, clovers, mints, linden trees or some of the many other flowering plants that participate in these finely tuned relationships evolution has created. If you can't find a patch of goldenrod or asters, you've found one of the big problems we have. Asphalt and lawns don't provide food or habitat for pollinators.
The new law supports pollinator health through restrictions on pollinator poisons and encouragement for creating more pollinator habitat. The law could certainly be better, but it is the first in the nation. It attempts to limit the use of and the damage caused by the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, or at least those that have a bee advisory box on the label.
One of the biggest uses of these very powerful pesticides is as seed treatment. Farmers plant neonicotinoid coated corn seeds so that each plant will repel/kill insects most of its life. Unfortunately, often much of light pesticide powder escapes from the planter and can be blown a long way with devastating effects on living things. The law mandates creation of best practices to minimize this damage and works toward registering those treated seeds as a pesticide. Although it isn't just the fly away dust that is the problem. Years ago folks in France found out that sunflowers grown from seeds treated with neonicotinoids contained enough toxin in their nectar months later to cause bees who sipped from the flowers to lose their way home.
The law mandates that all neonicotinoids labeled for treating plants be classified as restricted use. This means that as of October 1, 2016, they can only be sold to licensed pesticide applicators. In addition, it is illegal to apply these powerful toxins to any plant when it has blossoms or to linden (basswood) trees.
If you think we should go further in limiting these neo-nics, you could sign this petition to the President.
Encouraging Pollinator Habitat
|Honeybee on goldenrod.|
The law provides encouragement for planting and protecting pollinator habitat. It requires amending the state plan of conservation and development to give priority to "development that includes model pollinator habitat, ... and to expenditure of state funds for conservation purposes when an aspect of such conservation includes the protection or enhancing of pollinator habitats."
It also requires the establishment of model pollinator habitat as part of conservation plans on land to which the state acquires rights using federal funds.
Next year the Experiment Station will publish an online citizen's guide to model pollinator habitat. The Department of Transportation is required to submit a report on the opportunities to replace nonnative, cool-season turf grasses along state highways with native plant communities and to plant vegetation including pollinator habitat in areas along state highways that have been deforested.
The law requires the director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to appoint three of the station's knowledgeable scientists to a Pollinator Advisory Committee to provide advice to the legislature's environment committee.
It also requires the State Entomologist to report on the conditions that increase the presence of varroa mites to that legislative committee.
Creating Pollinator Habitat
According to the new law, a model pollinator habitat should include "a succession of flowers, wildflowers, vegetables, weeds, herbs, ornamental plants, cover crops and legume species to attract honey bees and other pollinators" in groups or clumps to provide a long season of continuous bloom. In addition, bee nesting sites should be protected.
I recently attended a workshop on creating urban oases offered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with the Audubon Society. Although the focus was on the showier species - birds (especially the ones that fly here from the tropics to breed), butterflies and moths - the approach presented also provides good habitat for the less showy pollinators. To protect our environment and our ability to live here, we should
• Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Insecticides harm the pollinators directly. Herbicides remove their habitat.
• Manage invasive plants. Non-native, invasive plants support far few species than native species do. They also push out native species.
• Conserve water. This summer shows us how precious water is.
• Protect water quality. This is an additional benefit of having a diverse, native plant, pollinator and bird-friendly buffer along and around water courses and bodies. Limiting or eliminating chemical fertilizers is very important too.
• Plant native species. Native plants provide food and habitat for many species as they use the sun's energy to turn common materials into leaves, nectar, seeds and fruit to feed insects and birds. I've never thought of caterpillars the same way since I heard Doug Tallamy describe them as the way nature turns leaves into bird food, passing the sun's energy up the food chain.
The three important aspects of creating habitat are using native plants, increasing variety or biodiversity and encouraging vertical structural diversity. It is easy to understand how a landscape with trees, shrubs and meadows, gardens or diverse farms make a friendlier habitat for birds and other species than a lawn or large cornfield, for example. Apparently community gardens are magnets for birds and other species, so many of us are already on the right path with our diverse organic gardens and farms. A diverse ecosystem with many native flowering plants is also one of the best pest control strategies for farms and gardens.
Fortunately there are many online resources to assist in creating appropriate habitats. Enhancing your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife is specific for Connecticut. The Xerces Society has a number of good publications including this one specific for New England. It has enough information for those who want to plant acres of pollinator habitat, but has good lists of pollinator friendly plants. Audubon has a number of resources for creating oases and attracting birds.To learn more about Pollinator Habitat and Biology, and Natural Resources Conservation Services programs for farmers, go here.
If we want the services pollinators provide, we need to create (or let nature create) pollinator friendly habitats for them.