David Suzuki: We Must Save the Honeybees and Here's How You Can Help
Many environmental campaigns over the past 50 years have aimed at getting people to care for imperiled species in wild, far-off places. The focus in Canada has often been on large, photogenic, culturally important animals, with bonus points for campaigns that include alliteration, bumper sticker-friendly slogans and plush toys. This has been a sensible and often successful strategy.
Over the past few years smaller, charismatic critters closer to home have buzzed into the spotlight: bees. About a decade ago, beekeepers in Europe and North America started noticing serious declines in honeybee populations. Bees have lost much of their natural habitat to urbanization and industrial agriculture and face increased stress from climate change-related drought and severe winters. These threats, coupled with the global spread of diseases and pests and a dramatic increase in the use of agricultural pesticides like neonicotinoids, have resulted in unprecedented losses for beekeepers. (Because bees and other insects provide ecological services like pollination, it makes no sense to declare war against all just to eliminate or control the few nuisances).
The honeybee decline has been big news partly because they make delicious honey, but more importantly because they’re pollinators. About three-quarters of flowering plants and more than a third of food crops worldwide depend on pollinators—from bees and butterflies to hummingbirds and bats. As a result, governments across the globe are developing strategies to protect them, including Ontario with its recently proposed Pollinator Health Action Plan.
Public attention in Canada has largely focused on domesticated European honeybees, but research indicates the honeybee crisis is part of a wider problem affecting hundreds of lesser-known but crucially important wild bee species.
Of about 800 wild bee species in Canada, more than 90 percent have a “solitary” lifestyle rather than living in large, social colonies. Two-thirds of these are ground-nesters, including bumblebees, mining and digger bees that make nests in soil and under leaves and rocks. The rest are cavity-nesters like mason and carpenter bees that burrow in hollow stems, twigs and logs.
Although honeybees get the headlines and most of the credit for pollinating flowers and crops, studies show that wild bees can be two or three times better at pollination and some, like mason bees, can be up to 80 times more effective.
The good news is that the honeybee crisis has galvanized interest in all pollinators, inspiring thousands of groups and citizens worldwide to establish new spaces for them, from wild bee hotels and rooftop honeybee hives to pollinator gardens in parks and schoolyards.
As our communities grow, pollinator habitat is fragmented into increasingly disconnected patches that disrupt natural pathways, making the potential of connected networks of habitat within cities especially fascinating. Oslo’s Bumblebee Highway, Seattle’s Pollinator Pathway and Hamilton’s Pollinator Paradise are all great local initiatives.
Establishing an urban pollinator corridor is also at the heart of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Homegrown National Park Project, which since 2013 has created more than 50 pollinator-friendly patches along the path of a creek now buried beneath Toronto—from small guerrilla plantings to a network of flower-filled canoe planters in schools, cafés, churches, parks and yards.
This spring, the foundation will launch the Great Canadian Butterflyway Project, to inspire bee-friendly urban innovations and neighborhood-scale pollinator corridors across the country. Through videos, tips and other resources, the project will profile projects nationwide that are bringing nature home, one pollinator-friendly planting at a time.
You can become part of the growing movement to protect pollinators. Head to the library (or check out this link) to research the amazing diversity of wild bees and other pollinators in your community. While you’re there, learn what flowers and shrubs best support those species and what might work in your yard or on your balcony. Then check out what local groups are up to.
Want to show wild bees some love? Create a sanctuary in your yard or garden by leaving a sunny patch of bare soil for ground-nesters. Add some pithy stems, sticks and wood debris for cavity-nesters. And be sure not to disturb the nests over winter.
Will the buzz generated by media stories and pun-filled campaigns save the bees? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can all help by making bees welcome in our yards and neighbourhoods.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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