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Ann Wright: Precious pollinators

Ann Wright
Reports from the Xerces society and the US Department of Fish and Wildlife indicate that the population of monarch butterflies has declined to alarming lows.
Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey, UC Davis


Precious – treasured, something to protect and cherish – a good word to describe these marvelous creatures! Typically, honey bees and other insects come to mind as pollinators and, although they do the bulk of the pollination, there are other creatures that help pollinate as well. The Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) includes birds, bats, wasps and butterflies on the list of pollinators. Furthermore, some, such as certain species of bumble bees and butterflies, are considered endangered.

Honey bees are invaluable and precious pollinators. In 2006 an alarm was sounded when thousands of honey bee colonies died – for reasons largely unknown. The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CDC) was given to the mysterious syndrome where the sudden death of thousands of worker bees in the hive occurred, leaving only a queen and young bees. But without worker bees, the hives won’t survive. According the US Department of Agriculture, no exact scientific cause of CCD has been found, although it is believed that a number of factors may be involved.

However, over the past years since CCD was first described, the cases of colony death have dropped, but beekeepers still report losing a significant percentage of bees each year to other causes. Four major areas of concern have been identified: parasites and pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, and exposure to pesticides. Additionally, many of these factors may overlap which makes identifying a single cause difficult.

Sound the alarm again – this time for the western monarch butterfly, also a precious pollinator. Reports from the Xerces society and the US Department of Fish and Wildlife indicate that the population of monarch butterflies has declined to alarming lows. In the 1980’s the Xerces Society estimated there were around 4.5 million monarchs overwintering in California. By 2018 the count revealed a drop to about 28,500 monarchs. At the 2020 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, critically low numbers of monarchs were counted – fewer than 2,000 butterflies were identified in the primary overwintering areas of Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) indicated that the decline in the western migratory monarch butterfly populations warrants consideration for inclusion on the endangered species list, but is currently precluded by higher priority listing activities. The western monarch is now categorized as a “candidate species”, meaning they are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although not listed as endangered, the western monarchs will continue to be monitored, counted, and with proactive support of conservation groups and communities across the west, perhaps these precious pollinators can be saved.

Specific recommendations from the Xerces Society and other conservation groups to help both bees and butterflies is to protect their habitat and foraging areas from pesticides, particularly systemic insecticides. (For more information on pest management, check the statewide IPM website at http://ipm.ucanr.edu/.)

Conservation aimed at our precious pollinators is a big task, but some simple steps will help make a difference. Growing pollinator-friendly plants is a place to start. There are a number of flowering plants that are good sources of pollen and nectar – and for our precious monarchs, native milkweed. As the required host plant for the monarch butterfly, milkweed is essential to monarch survival. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and the plant plays an important part in protection from predators as the milkweed contains compounds that create toxins distasteful to predators. Restoration of native milkweed habitats and protection of existing milkweed areas is a huge step in reversing the trend in butterfly loss. Additionally, the availability of high-quality nectar which milkweed produces supports many beneficial insects that are naturally predatory and may help control garden and crop pests. Studies have shown that showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) attracts a high number of beneficial insects, including ladybeetles and mature pirate bugs.

Although there are about 15 types of milkweed native to California, the following four species are native to our area and are recommended for restoration or creating habitat for monarchs:

• Asclepias speciosa, commonly called showy milkweed;

• A. fasicularis, also known as narrow leaf milkweed;

• A. eriocarpa, also called wooly pod or Indian milkweed;

• A. cordifolia, known as purple or heartleaf milkweed.

Additionally, providing nesting sites for ground-dwelling or cavity-nesting pollinators is also a simple step that can be accomplished in home gardens. One way to support ground nesting bees is to allow some areas of the land un-turned, as bees need stable soil into which they nest. A sunny, well-drained area with some grass clumps to prevent erosion should draw these interesting little bees. For cavity-nesters, leave old tree stumps and logs in place and when pruning hollow-stemmed shrubs, leave some of the prunings for the native bees.

If you’d like to learn more about precious pollinators, join Master Gardeners for the first workshop of the season, “Pollinators – Encourage these Vital Little Critters” to be offered via Zoom on Saturday, Feb. 13 at 9 a.m. The workshop is free, open to the public to attend and can be accessed via our website at http://ncmg.ucanr.org/. We are looking forward to resuming our in-person workshops when restrictions are lifted and it’s safe for us to do so. In the meantime, we are committed to continuing our education programs virtually and providing a live format on the radio every Saturday with “Master Gardeners and Friends” from 10 a.m. to noon on KNCO radio, 830 on the am dial.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.


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