Editor’s Note: This is a guest contribution as part of our Sustainability Scavenger Hunt series. Read more here, and download the fun activity book for families and classrooms!

by guest contributor Shahla Werner

Back in 1987 renowned Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson published a now famous paper called The Little Things that Run the World. In that paper Wilson – who studies the fascinating world of ants – made the case that insects and other arthropods not only dominate terrestrial ecosystems in terms of species richness and the sheer biomass they represent, but also play a vital role in a variety of ecosystem functions. These range from plant consumption (herbivory) to decomposition (think burying beetles) to serving as a food base for animals, including birds, frogs, bats, and humans (2 billion people around the world depend on insects for food) to predation (think ground beetles, wasps, and assassin bugs) to pollination (think bees – but it goes way beyond them). Understanding the unique beauty, diversity, and critical role of insects makes it plain that our future survival and quality of life is intrinsically linked to conserving these amazing little creatures.

photo by Ingrid Taylar via Flickr creative commons

Unfortunately, we could lose many species of insects, including pollinators, if we don’t take action to better understand and protect them soon. Pollinators provide crop services valued at $3 billion per year and are needed to facilitate reproduction for almost 90 percent of flowering plants. While many may think only of the human-managed honeybee, a species native to Europe, when they think of pollination, the truth is pollinators also include thousands of species of native bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and even beetles.

Unfortunately, honeybees and other pollinators are facing widespread declines across the United States due to loss of habitat, pesticides, introduced parasites and pathogens, and extreme weather events that have become more frequent as a result of climate change. 60 percent of Wisconsin honeybees were lost during the winter of 2014-15 due to stressors such as Varroa mites and cold temperatures. Native pollinators, which include over 400 species of bees in Wisconsin, are also experiencing alarming declines. Species known to be in decline include the rusty-patched bumblebee, the yellow-banded bumblebee, the American bumblebee, the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly, and the monarch butterfly. Other native species could be in decline, but we just don’t know enough about their populations to tell for sure.

Female Karner blue butterfly. (Shutterstock)

What can you do to protect pollinators?

Educating yourself is the first step.

Wisconsin is one of a growing number of states that recently completed a pollinator protection plan. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, in collaboration with University of Wisconsin-Madison postdoctoral associate Christina Locke, completed the plan in 2016, with input from more than 30 stakeholders, including beekeepers, farmers, and landscapers. You can read the entire plan here, or view the shorter Best Management Practices.

The next step is to act.

One of the easiest things you can do is provide habitat for pollinators in your own back yard. This means avoiding the use of pesticides, especially when plants are flowering, and purposely leaving “messier” areas in your yard for pollinators to nest. It also means planting a diverse array of native perennial flowers that are attractive to pollinators so that your yard can support thriving populations of various species all season long. Once you get started, you can join a million other gardeners across the nation who have pledged to protect pollinator habitat with the Xerces Society, a nonprofit whose mission is dedicated to the conservation of insects and other invertebrates. Their book, Attracting Native Pollinators, is a great resource.

You can rise to the critical challenge of protecting pollinators for the future and beautify your corner of the world while you’re at it!

Want more? Learn more about the plight of our pollinators and get 5 tips for things you can do right at home!

Shahla Werner is the Plant Protection Section Chief for the Bureau of Plant Industry at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection. She earned her MS and PhD in entomology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where she studied forest beetle biodiversity and the introduced basswood thrips. She enjoys camping, cooking, reading and canoeing with her husband, Andy, and their children, Darwin and Miranda.