San Francisco Department of the Environment

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This Thanksgiving, Why Not Thank a Pollinator?

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November 23, 2016

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

One in every three bites of food we eat is courtesy of insect pollination and that food contains major proportions of essential micronutrients like Vitamin A & C, iron, zinc, folate, amino acids, and antioxidants. The honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination due to modern agricultural methods. Even some of the plants that cows eat (alfalfa and clover) to make milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, and beef, depend on pollinators.

Pollinators include the well-known honey bee brought to America by European settlers in the 1600s, as well as her lesser-known hardworking native cousins, the bumble, orchard, squash and other bees, as well as moths, beetles, hummingbirds, butterflies, bats, and hoverflies.

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 honeybee is the only bee to convert the nectar to honey for overwintering.

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. Fruits and nuts are welcome bonuses.

We have about 4000 species of native wild bees in North America, but that number is declining due to pesticide exposure, loss of pollinator habitat, poor nutrition and disease. America’s honeybee colonies are also dying in unprecedented numbers, averaging as much as 44 percent last year.

Pollinators depend on flowers with nectar; without them, they starve. Moreover, without the pollinators, 90 percent of all species of wild 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 honey beekeepers refuse to bring in their hives due to excessive pesticide use in the orchards.”

When we take care of the pollinators by planting the native plants they co-adapted with over millions of years that flower in succession throughout the growing season, and by using insecticides, fungicides and herbicides only when there is no alternative, not only are we ensuring food supplies for man and animal, we are also 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 our native bees. And when you savor that pumpkin pie, thank a squash bee. If it’s served a la mode, thank a leafcutter bee for pollinating the dairy cow’s alfalfa. If you chase it with a cup of coffee, thank a stingless bee or fly. You might even consider capping off the evening with a honey toast to our little striped friend, the honeybee.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This November 22, 2012 article was updated and reprinted with permission from the Asheville Citizen-Times. 

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