Dallas and Roxie DeShane of rural Orion, Ill., had been growing fruits and vegetables to sell at farmers markets for a long time when, about six years ago, they noticed something disturbing.
Actually, it was what they didn't notice.
Out in their gardens, they didn't see as many pollinators as in previous years.
Pollinators are the bees, butterflies, moths, bats, birds and various insects that, in the course of collecting food from various plants, also pollinate them, which is essential to producing fruit. No pollination, no crop.
Roughly 30 percent of the food Americans eat depends upon pollination. This includes apples, blueberries, strawberries, chocolate, almonds, peaches and pumpkins.
But it also takes in beets, asparagus, broccoli, carrots and onions that need pollinators to create seeds, and beef and dairy cattle because they eat a lot of alfalfa, which depends on pollinators.
"The gravity of the situation is greater than people understand," Roxie DeShane said of the declining numbers of pollinators.
While the cause appears to be multifaceted — habitat loss and insecticide use are two factors — there are steps regular gardeners can take to encourage pollinator survival, particularly bees.
1. Reduce or eliminate insecticide use.
A growing number of backyard gardeners across the country are reading labels and making a conscious effort not to purchase products containing neonicotinoids, and it's becoming a hot topic. Some nurseries this spring are offering "bee safe" plants that have been raised with no neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are a class of chemicals that came on the market in the 1990s and are linked by some scientific research with the deaths of pollinator insects.
The chemicals are systemic, meaning the insecticide is transported through the entire plant, including the roots, leaves, petals, pollen and nectar. Gardeners worry about what happens when the bees take this poisoned pollen back to their hives.
Eliminating chemicals means you'll probably have some plant damage, but if you want to help pollinators — especially bees — this is important. Bees are insects, and insecticides kill them.
Look on the label of some of your common insecticides. You may be surprised to see the sentence: "This pesticide is highly toxic to bees."
If you must use an insecticide, purchase formulations that are less toxic, said Donald R. Lewis, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach entomologist in Ames. Granules and emulsifiable concentrates are safer to use than wettable powders, dusts or microencapsulated products. Or use a product such as insecticidal soap or Bacillus thuringiensis, he said.
Avoid applying any insecticides to any plant that is blooming. Bees and other pollinators may be harmed if they contact the insecticide or if they consume nectar or pollen containing insecticides, Lewis said.
He also cautions against using any systemic insecticide on plants even after they bloom if that product lasts until the next season's blooming. The active ingredient called imidacloprid (a kind of neonicotinoid) — used against Japanese beetles and emerald ash borer — is one of those products that persists, but the ingredient dinotefuran is active only during the current season, Lewis said.
Imidacloprid products include Bayer Advanced 12-Month Tree and Shrub Insect Control, Ferti-Lome Systemic Tree & Shrub Insect Drench and Ortho Bug B Gon Year-Long Shrub Insect Control Concentrate.
Dinotefuran products include Green Light Tree & Shrub Insect Control with Safari 2G and Ortho Tree & Shrub Insect Control Granules.
For homeowners who want to protect their ash trees against emerald ash borer, an invasive pest that kills ash trees, a careful application of imidacloprid will have minimal risks to pollinators, Lewis said.
However, applications to protect a linden tree from Japanese beetles produce a very high risk to bees and other insects, he said. ISU Extension does not recommend using imidacloprid just prior to, or during, bloom because of that toxicity.
2. Diversify plantings.
Plant flowers and other pollinator-friendly plants — flowers, shrubs, trees, herbs and grasses — everywhere.
Plant a mixture. Pollinators need a variety of plants that bloom at different times (early, mid-season and late) and with different flower types, such as tubular or composite, like sunflower, Lewis said.
"This is really important," DeShane added. "With their various mouth parts, each (pollinator) needs a particular type of flower."
Also, a clump of one type of plant is better than a lot of singular plants, Lewis said. And consider leaving flowering weeds such as clover and dandelions.
(See Page D3 for lists of suggested plants.)
3. Provide nesting habitat.
Most bees (between 60 percent and 70 percent) dig burrows in the ground. These bees prefer dry, sandy soil bare of vegetation, often on hillsides. You can attract ground-nesting bees simply by making sure to leave some spots of exposed, undisturbed soil in your yard.
This can be a difficult step for a gardener because bare dirt isn't attractive. But as with the reduction or elimination of pesticides, it's important to the bees.
You also can provide a "bee house" for bees that are the cavity-nesting type. (See accompanying story on mason bees.)
4. Provide clean water.
Put the water in a shallow dish, bowl or birdbath with half-submerged stones for perches.
5. Become educated, spread the word, become a citizen scientist.
The DeShanes were very disheartened when they realized the scope of the pollinator problem.
The couple decided to make it their mission to educate people about what pollinators are and the vital role they play in keeping our world functioning.
They developed a presentation called "Pollinators, At Your Service: Working for You 24/7" that they take around to clubs, schools — anyplace that will have them.
"Education is key," DeShane said. "You have to know about pollinators to start caring for them."
Getting educated and spreading the word is something everyone can do, she added.
She also recommends becoming a "citizen scientist," a volunteer who observes and reports findings on various creatures such as bumblebees, birds and monarch butterflies.
Her mantra is, "If not you, who?"