Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take required a pollinator visit? Pollination is essential for many of our favorite foods—from almonds to vanilla, and so many fruits and vegetables in between.
The decline of pollinators around the world is threatening not only our food supply but also the function of plant communities and ecosystems. Multiple factors play a role in pollinator decline, including land-use changes, pesticide use, climate change, and the spread of invasive species and diseases.
The well-documented plight of the iconic monarch butterfly has become emblematic of widespread pollinator decline. Perhaps many of you, like me, have childhood memories of setting out with a butterfly net and a jar with nail holes in the lid. I recall with pleasure catching and admiring monarchs up close until it was time to set them free. I worry that children may not have that simple pleasure much longer. After an all-time low population count in 2012–13, monarch numbers dwindled even lower the following winter, when monitored in their overwintering location in Mexico.
Now a much less common sight: a monarch butterfly cluster. Image by Christian Mehlführer (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) on the Dixon Prairie.
In the case of the monarch, several factors are likely contributing to its rapid decline. Loss of forested wintering grounds; loss of the milkweeds, which are their larval host plants; severe weather events; and a reduction of nectar plants along their migration routes due to drought have probably all contributed. Three leading monarch experts, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Dr. Chip Taylor, and Dr. Karen Oberhauser, have all cited GMO (genetically modified) crops as a leading factor in the decline. Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) once thrived on the edges of farm fields throughout the Midwest. Modern farming techniques use herbicide-resistant crops coupled with an increased use of herbicides; the native milkweeds are disappearing, and as they go, so do the monarchs.
There are things all of us can do: from planting milkweeds and other native plant species that provide nectar throughout the growing season, to minimizing pesticide use, and to supporting organic farmers. We can also become citizen scientists, reporting monarch observations to programs like Monarch Watch and Journey North, or working with the Monarch Joint Venture.
Perhaps, with our help, new generations of children will continue to know the joy of admiring the beautiful monarch butterfly, and then letting it go to continue its amazing migratory journey.