Eric Lee-Mäder on the Plight of the Pollinators
This week on Rootstock Radio host Theresa Marquez talks to Eric Lee-Mäder, co-director of the Pollinator Program at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Eric is the lead author of several books, including the best-selling Attracting Native Pollinators and Farming with Beneficial Insects: Strategies for Ecological Pest Management.
The Xerces Society takes its name as an homage to the first butterfly to go extinct in the United States, the Xerces Blue Butterfly. This name, Eric says, reminds the organization of its mission. “We’ve seen fully the loss of about 40% of the sheer numbers of wildlife on earth over the past 40 or 50 years,” he explains, continuing, “these trends are widespread and we need to do something about it.”
Eric’s area of expertise lies in the perils our pollinators face today. “Habitat loss is one of the major, if not the biggest driver of pollinator decline,” he says, adding that insecticides also contribute substantially. Unfortunately, pollinator decline isn’t the only reason Eric is concerned about insecticides. “Neonicotinoid insecticides are now found in measurable concentrations in about half of all of the surface waters in the United States,” he says. Neonicotinoids are promoted as fairly safe for humans, but Eric points out that because they are a relatively new class of insecticide we don’t know what the risks of long-term exposure might be.
Eric is adamant in that “all of us can be stewards of pollinator habitat,” because even an urban window box can make a difference. “We are all linked-in as much as any other animal on earth,” he reminds listeners, adding “and to ignore the plight of the pollinators? We do so at our own folly.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Eric Lee-Mäder, pollinator, conservation, and ag biodiversity program co-director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. He’s also the lead author of several books, including the best-selling Attracting Native Pollinators and Farming with Native Beneficial Insects: Ecological Pest Control Solutions. Eric, we are so excited to speak with you today.
ERIC LEE-MADER: It is great to be with you. Thank you for having me.
TM: I’m sure that our listeners, and if some of our listeners there are also Scrabble people, will love this word, Xerces. Eric, I wondered if you’d start out and tell us a little bit about where that name came from.
ELM: Yeah, yeah! Xerces was the name of the Persian king. But in the case of the Xerces Society, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation takes our name from the Xerces blue butterfly, which was the first butterfly to go extinct in North America. And within this group of butterflies, what we call the blues, which, as the name would suggest, most of them are just beautiful little blue butterflies, entomologists over the years, particularly entomologists who have been really fixated and fascinated by these blue butterflies—Nabokov, the author of Lolita, being one of those entomologists—but in any case, unfortunately, the Xerces blue was the first butterfly that we know of to go extinct in the United States due to habitat loss. And, interestingly, it was actually a casualty of the Second World War. The last of its habitat was paved over in the San Francisco area during the Second World War to build the Presidio naval base. So, you know, you can chalk up one more notable casualty of the Second World War, and in this case, you know, a full-blown extinction of a species. So it has served as sort of a reminder of our mission as an organization.
TM: And certainly, once these butterflies and other wildlife go extinct, they aren’t coming back. So this certainly begs the question, Eric: How are we doing with invertebrates right now? What do you think? Are you guys helping to keep many of these invertebrates from going extinct?
ELM: Oh boy… You know, I want to put a positive spin on things, but it’s hard. And you know, I’m sure so many of our listeners have been tracking the news over the past few years around honeybees and sort of the mass decline of honeybees. And for some context, you know, we have seen roughly a 50 percent decline in the number of managed honeybee hives in the United States over the past half-century. And honeybees are not native to North America—they’re sort of a form of domesticated livestock. But the declines that we’re seeing in honeybees sort of reflect a broader trend among insects, and among pollinators in particular. And honeybees have gotten all of this attention, which is good—it’s important that we call attention and raise awareness to what’s going on.
But I think the problems, unfortunately, are deeper and maybe more significant than just the honeybee focus the media has led a lot of folks to believe. You know, if we look beyond honeybees and start looking at wild, native pollinators, we can see species like our native bumblebees—and there are about 48 species of bumblebees in the United States. And as of today, we have fully a quarter of them probably at risk of extinction.
TM: Oh dear!
ELM: And in fact, just a little over a month ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service actually approved for listing under the Endangered Species Act the first of these species in the continental United States. It’s the rusty-patched bumblebee. It’s a bumblebee that is native to your state of Wisconsin there, and in fact, one of the last remnant populations we know of is in central Wisconsin. And that species is so imperiled that, not to overstate it, this could be potentially the last year on planet Earth.
Now, we’ve seen, you know, sort of adding tragedy to tragedies, we’ve seen just here in the past month efforts by the new administration—not to get too political too quick into our conversation here—but we’ve seen now efforts on the part of the incoming administration to put a freeze on new regulations, especially regulations that were in the process of being enacted by the outgoing administration. And so it has put the Endangered Species listing of the rusty-patched bumblebee on temporary hold. We hope that it’s not permanent, a permanent hold, but it’s created sort of a confounding situation for those of us who care about pollinators, care about wildlife, care about the protection of biodiversity on the Earth.
You know, these trends that we see with honeybees, with the rusty-patched bumblebee, we see them in other species. We’ve seen a 90 percent decline in monarch butterflies in the United States over the past 20 years. We’ve seen fully the loss of about 40 percent of the sheer numbers of wildlife on Earth over the past 40 or 50 years. So these trends are widespread, and we need to do something about it.
And that’s what we do at the Xerces Society. And you know, there are these examples out there of folks doing great work to steward the land for these animals. And that’s what motivates me. You know, the small achievements, the small accomplishments that we see are important and motivating and, I think, can serve as kind of a model that hopefully we can promote and spread.
TM: Well, gosh, you know, all of this brings up so many questions. So now the other question that is probably coming up in all of our minds here: What is it that’s happening to the pollinators and to wildlife? What are the main things that are happening that are creating these dangerous situations where extinction and imperil is so prevalent?
ELM: Yeah, and unfortunately there’s no shortage of things on that list. So we could begin with threats or stresses such as habitat loss. And habitat loss can, of course, take many forms. It can take the form of urbanization; it can take the form of intensification of agriculture. In the case of the monarch butterfly, the rise of GMO technologies, especially Roundup-Ready corn and soy crops in the Midwest, have eliminated most of the milkweed that used to grow in and around cornfields. And that milkweed, of course, is the food plant for the monarch butterfly caterpillar. So the mass spraying, almost of the entire central United States, with glyphosate and the spraying of these herbicide-resistant corn and soy fields has dramatically degraded the breeding habitat for monarch butterflies.
So habitat loss is up there. And simply the broad conversion of pastureland and grassland and lands that have historically been maintained in conservation easements, and the conversion of that back to row-crop production has been really dramatic over the past decade. One of the drivers that people often have to point to in terms of conversion of grassland to row-crop production is the Renewable Fuel Standard Act of 2007, which incentivized this corn ethanol production. So we’ve seen, probably since 2007, we’ve seen at least nine million acres of permanent perennial grasslands in the United States converted back to primarily corn production. So habitat loss is probably one of the major if not the biggest driver of pollinator declines.
Invasive species—you know, the degradation of habitat, the spread of non-native grasses and invasive plants that take over native flowering plant communities is a factor. The widespread use of insecticides is a major driver as well. And one group of insecticides that people oftentimes point to when they’re talking about pollinator protection is the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. These are basically systemic insecticides that are sequestered in the plant tissue. So you can apply it as a seed coating, you can spray it on the foliage of the plants, and it’s actually absorbed into the plants’ tissues. And it can be found, depending upon the amount applied, depending upon a number of factors, it can be found in the nectar or pollen of plants.
So if you think about a sunflower that is planted with a seed coating that includes these neonicotinoids that in coating could produce an amount of this toxic insecticide to be present in the nectar of that sunflower. So a bee visiting that flower to pollinate it would get a dose of that insecticide—maybe enough to kill it, maybe not. Maybe enough just to make it sick and inhibit its ability to reproduce.
Neonicotinoids are now, as I said, the most commonly used class of insecticides on Earth, and they are increasingly just one of the more common classes of chemicals found on Earth. Based upon recent surveys by the U.S. Geological Service, neonicotinoid insecticides are now found in measurable concentrations in about half of all of the surface waters in the United States. And these things are, you know, they’ve been promoted as “fairly safe,” at least from an acute standpoint, to humans—although, that said, we don’t really know what long-term exposure, long-term chronic exposure to these things will do to us.
TM: Yes, this is a USDA risk assessment, an EPA risk assessment, which is kind of terrifying, given that they’re about to gut both the EPA and the USDA, to some extent.
ELM: Yeah, but these things have been promoted as, oh, you know, they won’t harm you if you get a big dose of it—you, as a human. But again, we don’t know anything about long-term exposure. And yet we do know that these things are incredibly dangerous to not just bees but countless other beneficial insects. We think that these things are tremendously detrimental to birds. Sort of, you know, the list of aquatic invertebrates that are potentially threatened by these chemicals is way too long to list. There are some big questions. And no doubt, insecticides are having a huge impact.
TM: So, just for our listeners, when you talk about aquatic invertebrates, you’re talking about like mussels and—
ELM: Exactly. So you can think about freshwater mussels, you know, the little clam-like organisms that you’ll see in the bottoms of streams and rivers. And those are really important to animals for filtering water. They’re filter feeders, so they help clean water. But there’s also, you know, you think about dragonfly larva in water systems, and those dragonflies, when they emerge, are voracious predators of mosquitoes. You can think about other small insects or crustaceans in waters that feed other wildlife, that feed fish, that feed really important fish like salmon. And these, you know, the ripple effect sort of spreads throughout the food chain when we harm sort of this lower base of animals that sort of prop up all other life-forms on Earth.
TM: Well, you certainly just said something I was going to ask next, and that was what is the importance of these invertebrates to our own existence as human beings on Earth?
ELM: Yeah, and it’s a great question, and I am… You know, in full disclosure, my area of expertise is always strongest on sort of pollinator issues. That said, if we just look at pollinators, we can easily note that roughly 85 or 90 percent of all plant species, all land-based plant species on Earth, require or very strongly benefit from some form of animal-assisted pollination. And most of that animal-assisted pollination, most of that pollen movement between flowers, is happening by insects. If you think about that, 85 percent of all plant species on Earth, it’s staggering to consider what the loss of pollinators would mean. You know, 25 percent of all bird and mammal diets on Earth are pollinator-produced fruits and seeds. And that’s not even counting the foliage, the leaf tissue, just the raw plant biomass that other animals are feeding on as well.
And we’re one of those animals. You know, as much as we might tend to forget the fact that we are interdependent upon the same basic types of food supplies that wildebeests and cheetahs and so many other animals sort of ultimately depend upon—we are no different. We, at the end of the day, our food comes from the soil, it comes from plants, it comes from the pollinators that maintain the life of those plants, the ability of those plants to reproduce. It depends, you know, we’re dependent upon some of the higher animals that depend upon those plant sources. We are linked in, as much as any other animal on Earth. And to ignore the plight of pollinators, you know, we do so at our folly.
TM: Well, we certainly have seen human activity in folly recently. If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. And I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Eric Lee-Mäder, codirector of Xerces Society, and we are talking about invertebrates, pollinators, honeybees, butterflies, and much more.
Well, at least there are some acknowledgment of the problem and some people trying to correct it. Which, of course, brings us to the big question I think our listeners are probably thinking, and that is, wow, what can I do to help? And there are things that we can do, I believe, besides staying completely informed, because that’s important too. Aren’t there some things that you could suggest, Eric, that we can feel like we are empowered to try and do something?
ELM: Yeah. Yeah, and there are so many things. And I’m glad you asked, because you could get pretty depressed and pretty down about the current state of affairs. But actually, I think that the solutions are really within reach for all of us, which is the great part of this story.
So, you know, every one of us can be, at whatever scale, we can be, all of us, stewards of pollinator habitat. You know, if you’ve got a garden at home, you can create kind of a pollinator sanctuary. You can plant flowering native wildflowers among your vegetables and support pollinators. You can reduce pesticide use in that landscape. Even if your garden is nothing more than a small window box on a balcony, you can create pollinator habitat. And it’s remarkable—and even, you could be in the middle of New York City and plant a few native plants on a balcony, and you will get bees showing up and using that. And, you think about it, if everybody in the city does that, then suddenly the city is basically a giant prairie or a giant wildflower meadow.
So habitat is definitely something that we can all protect, we can all steward. You can get involved in your local communities that work to remove invasive plants and restore native plants to greenspaces. You can act with your wallet: you can support local agriculture that incorporates conservation efforts into farm production and supports the integration of pollinator conservation and biodiversity protection into regenerative agricultural systems. You should eat organic if you can do it.
And it’s worth noting that recently, as part of the National Organic Program, one of the certification requirements that is now getting a little bit of fine-tuning is the requirement for biodiversity conservation. And one of the ways that we’re now seeing a lot of organic farmers trying to make sure that they meet that requirement is by creating pollinator habitats or pollinator refuges on their farms. And those might be wildflower field borders or flowering native shrub hedgerows. There are a number of different strategies that farmers are using to provide that pollinator habitat, to make sure that they’re meeting the letter and the spirit of organic certifications.
So those are some pretty basic things that all of us can do. And you know, we can also all be involved in some of the bigger policy questions, and to be talking to our representatives about this issue and making sure that pollinators are included in the conservation provision of the Farm Bill. There are state and local efforts to create regulations that will better protect pollinators. There are multiple levels at which any of us can engage.
TM: And so, Eric, you, I know, have a website. Is it Xerces.org?
ELM: It is, yeah: Xerces.org.
TM: And so we can all keep up and be informed on things that are happening around the country on Xerces.org?
ELM: Absolutely. Yeah, we’ve got an astounding library of free fact sheets and publications that you can download on pollinator conservation, and we’ve got wildflower guides for many, many regions of the country, if you’re interested in creating pollinator habitats in your own community. We also have links to other resources. We’ve got event announcements. The Xerces Society and our partners have pollinator conservation workshops going on across the country all the time. So wherever you live, there’s usually something coming up.
TM: That is so excellent. And I have to ask one more question here: How are you funded?
ELM: We are funded through the generosity of some great foundations. We have been lucky in getting some important support from agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service. But one of the most important sources of funding we have is the support of our members. And we are a membership-based organization. We’ve got a pretty great range of member benefits. You know, to me, probably the most meaningful of those benefits is simply the role that every one of our member-supporters has in sustaining our on-the-ground work to protect pollinators.
You know, since 2008 we have supported, I think, roughly 300,000 [or] 350,000 acres of habit restoration for pollinators. We’ve worked to move the dial on pesticide policy issues and work towards pesticide reform. We’ve got just an amazing impact for an organization of our size. And you know, I can’t say enough about the value of our members in making all of that possible.
TM: Thank you so much, Eric, for saying that. And for all of you listeners out there, let’s all be members of the Xerces Society and adopt the pollinators and the invertebrates, and realize that not only are they our friends, and also absolutely critical for the food that we love. And so it’s been just very enlightening to talk with you, Eric, today. And I’m excited to think about my garden this year—it’s February, so we’re all thinking about seeds. And let’s all remember those pollinators out there, and maybe even planting some special things for them, as well as the food that we love. And I’m also right now very proud to be part of the organic community, because I know that organic works, and that it is a solution.
So I’m really just grateful that you’re here with us today, Eric, and enlightening us on how we are connected to pollinators, and we’re all connected. So it’s exciting to know that we also can do something, and all of us out there, in little ways and big ways too. So Xerces.org, the Xerces Society. Once again, I’m talking to the biodiversity program co-director, Eric Lee-Mäder. And Eric, I want to say thank you for all the good work you’re doing and for how much you care about these things. It’s clear, and it’s so with great gratitude I am thanking you.
ELM: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
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