This Thanksgiving, Why Not Thank a Pollinator?

Phyllis Stiles, Director, Bee City USA

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As we gather around the Thanksgiving table this year, perhaps we can take a moment to thank the hardworking pollinators that helped most of our food grow.

According to the USDA, about one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. Even the plants that cows eat (alfalfa and clover) to make milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, and beef depend on pollinators.

bee-city-logoThis summer, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to become the inaugural Bee City USA with a commitment to making our environment more hospitable to pollinators. Pollinators include the well-known honey bee (brought to America by European settlers in the 1600s) as well as her lesser-known native cousins, the hardworking, fuzzy bumble bee, and others.

All pollinators travel from flower to flower during sunny days that are warm enough for flight, visiting as many as 1000 flowers per day, gathering nectar and spreading pollen along the way. The honey bee is the only bee to convert the nectar to honey for overwintering. Surviving the winter is honeybees’ greatest challenge, and because you shouldn’t open the hive during cold weather (bees have to keep the center of the hive about 95 degrees or so to keep the brood and themselves alive), you don’t know until the first warm days of spring whether a hive made it. Beekeepers make up losses by dividing hives in the spring, but that becomes more and more difficult the greater the hive loss.

Flowers evolved nectar as pollinator bait to do what plants cannot do for themselves—move the pollen (the sperm) to the plants’ ovaries to make seeds. Fruit and nuts are welcome bonuses.

We have about 4,000 species of native bees in the United States, but that number is declining every year due to pesticides and loss of pollinator habitat. America’s honey bee colonies are also dying in unprecedented numbers, as much as 30 percent or more each year, due to imported mites, pesticides, and diseases.

Pollinators depend on flowers with nectar; without them, they starve. Moreover, without the pollinators, 80 percent of all species of flowering plants and trees will eventually become extinct.

According to the Xerces Society Guide, Attracting Native Pollinators, “In China’s Sichuan Province, one of the largest apple producing regions in the world, farmers perch on ladders in mountainside orchards to pollinate blossoms by hand. The farmers have adopted this practice because wild bees are now absent in their area, and beekeepers refuse to bring in their honey bee hives due to excessive pesticide use in the orchards.”

When we take care of the pollinators by planting native plants that flower in succession throughout the growing season and only using pesticides when there is no alternative, not only are we ensuring food supplies for both man and animal, we also are encouraging beneficial insects that prey on true crop pests, like aphids. All of the fragrant, colorful flowers aren’t so bad either!

So as you scoot that cranberry sauce onto your bite of turkey, thank a pollinator. And when you savor that sweet potato casserole, thank a pollinator. When that salty green bean crosses your lips, thank a pollinator. If you like a cup of coffee with your apple pie, thank a pollinator. You might even consider capping off the evening with a honey toast to our little striped friend, the honey bee.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Phyllis Stiles is Director of Bee City USA, a program of the Center for Honey Bee Research, located in Asheville. Phyllis and Richard have lived on Courtland Avenue since 1984, where they share their yard with two beehives. She can be contacted at beecityusa@gmail.com. Bee City USA is making the world safer for pollinators, one city at a time. Learn more at www.beecityusa.org.