If you build it, they will come – pollinators, that is

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Courtesy of Bill Lynch Coral hairstreak.

In the movie “Field of Dreams,” a struggling Iowa farmer hears a voice whispering, “If you build it, he will come.” Acting on a vision, he turns a cornfield into a baseball diamond. The ghosts of old baseball players visit, as well as the farmer’s late father.

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But the film is about more than baseball. A deeper message is that if you create something needed and wanted, those it was intended for will find their way.

The quote from “Field of Dreams” comes to mind when thinking of insect pollinators, which are essential to nature’s food web and human food production, but are struggling to survive at a time when non-native plants are spreading and pesticide use is wiping out beneficial insects.

Many conservation groups and park commissions throughout New Jersey are responding to the loss of pollinators by building their own fields of dreams – native wildflower meadows where bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators can thrive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 80% of the plants that produce fruits and vegetables worldwide require pollination. While some plants can be pollinated by wind, most require insect pollinators to carry grains of pollen from flower to flower.

Here in the Garden State, many apiarists keep domesticated honeybees on farms, or truck hives from farm to farm to pollinate crops. But honeybees are not native to New Jersey – they were brought here from Europe – and shouldn’t be considered a replacement for wild native pollinators.

According to the Xerces Society, which works to conserve invertebrates, North America has more than 3,600 native wild bee species, and many aren’t doing well: “Twenty-eight percent of bumble bee species are considered threatened, and more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (particularly bees and butterflies) may face extinction in the coming decades.”

In a blog post, the Xerces Society noted that introduced honeybees harm native pollinators by causing food shortages when their hives are placed adjacent to healthy natural habitats.  

The solution? Keep building new and restoring degraded pollinator habitats.

“Creating pollinator habitat has broad benefits from increasing biodiversity to combating climate change, and such habitat can be situated anywhere—in backyards, on balconies and porches, on rooftops, in office landscapes, in local parks and community gardens,” said the Xerces Society. “Honeybees are fascinating to observe and manage, and can inspire people to learn more about insects. But a better approach to bee conservation is to focus on habitats for native pollinator species. Know that if you build good habitat, they will come!”

For native pollinators to thrive, they need native plants – not exotic imports from other parts of the world. Many pollinators are “specialists,” meaning they have evolved to depend on certain plants. For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars eat only the leaves of native milkweed plants. Adult monarchs can feed themselves by sipping nectar from a variety of flowers, but they must lay their eggs on milkweed in order for the next generation to survive.

In New Jersey, pollinator meadows are typically planted with a diversity of native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. In addition to milkweeds, popular species include bee balm, common yarrow, red columbine, serviceberry, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, wild bergamot, mountain mint, various aster and goldenrod species, American witch hazel, swamp verbena and pussy willow.

And while pollinator meadows usually cover several acres, native plants also do well in smaller spaces like yards and gardens. In his book “Nature’s Best Hope,” ecologist and professor Dr. Douglas Tallamy urges homeowners to use native plants to create little havens of biodiversity that he calls “Homegrown National Parks.”

Another important way to support pollinators is by reducing or eliminating the use of chemical pesticides. The class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics” for short, is especially dangerous to pollinators.

Neonics affect insects’ nervous systems, causing paralysis and death. Recent studies also point to neonics as the most likely cause for declining numbers of farmland and grassland birds – including many found in New Jersey, such as bobolinks, savannah and field sparrows, kingbirds and many swallow species.

In January 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the “Save the Bees” bill to limit neonic use. The law banned neonic applications in non-agricultural settings such as gardens, lawns and golf courses. However, neonics are still allowed for agricultural uses, and are widely used in growing corn and soybeans.

This past December, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the nation’s strongest neonic ban, known as the “Birds and Bees Protection Act.” In addition to banning neonics for residential use, the law will prohibit the sale of corn, soybean, and wheat seeds coated with neonics, effective in 2029.

Now that our large, agricultural neighboring state to the north has moved to prohibit most neonics for agriculture, New Jersey should step up and do the same. This action would help populations of our state’s insect pollinators, as well as our birds, waterways, and food supply.

The late biologist and author E.O. Wilson called insects “the little things that rule the world” for their critical role in sustaining ecosystems. “If we were to wipe out insects alone on this planet, the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. Within a few months,” he wrote.

Let’s help our bees, butterflies and birds – and ourselves — by banning neonics and creating more pollinator habitat. If you build it, they will come!

For more information on pollinators and creating habitat, go to https://www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation. For a focus on New Jersey pollinators and plants, check out https://rutgersgardens.rutgers.edu/gardens/pollinator-garden/.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org

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