miscellaneous musings pollinator threats

Pollinator week: what’s the point?

It may surprise some of you that I’m not excited about Pollinator Week, June 18-24. How can someone who writes about pollinators nearly every day admit such a thing?

To me, every week is pollinator week. The conservation of pollinators is much too important to be relegated to a once-per-year “dialog” or “conversation” (terms I dislike) or to an annual count-the-butterflies day. The plant-pollinator-food chain is one of the most complex and misunderstood aspects of life of earth, and I find the idea of “Pollinator Week” diminishing rather than exalting.

In part the problem stems from the proliferation of celebrations that can last a day, a week, or a month. Besides National Pollinator Week, June 2012 contains National Fishing Week, National Clay Week, and National Camping Week. The whole month of July is National Hotdog Month. Other months contain American Craft Beer Week, National Post Card Week, and National Backyard Games Week. In the company of these other celebrations, Pollinator Week seems like a joke.

Also, Pollinator Week is vague. What the heck is a pollinator? During my undergraduate education I worked for a plant breeder. I cross pollinated alfalfa flowers—thousands of them—recorded crosses, tagged plants, and collected seed. In other words, I was a pollinator. But I get the distinct impression that the U.S. Senate was not thinking about me when they declared National Pollinator Week back in 2007.

Likewise, I hear very little talk about beetles, bats, flies, ants, birds, or the legions of Chinese farm workers who also spend their day pollinating plant life. As with most conservation efforts, all the attention focuses on spectacular or showy life forms—in this case big bees and gaudy butterflies—and the majority of species are ignored.

And while honey bees pollinate a large proportion of agricultural crops, here in the Western Hemisphere they are non-native managed livestock. Money for honey bee research comes from the agricultural industry, as well it should. Honey bee lover that I am, I don’t think conservation efforts should be aimed at honey bees here in the Americas because we can’t “conserve” something that wasn’t here in the first place.

It is difficult to grasp the complexity of pollinator conservation. It requires at least some knowledge of plant-pollinator mutualisms, geographic distribution of plants and animals, biodiversity, island biogeography, habitat fragmentation and destruction, gene pools and genetic drift, local extinction, biochemistry of pesticides, and modern farming practices . . . and that is just a beginning. Since our schools don’t do a good job with basic science and math, many kids graduate without the biology, chemistry, physics, math and statistics needed to master these tenets.

So instead of teaching concepts and principles during Pollinator Week we build bee blocks, count bumble bees, or plant a butterfly garden. These things are easy to do and popular, but they do little to reverse pollinator decline. Worse, they give the false impression that pollinator problems can be solved by spending a Saturday afternoon in the garden with a hammer and seed packet. And after that, we can move onto National Hotdog Month with a clear conscience.


Most flowering plant species are pollinated by beetles (Buchman & Nabhan 1996).

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  • I hear the frustration. As a person who started in science and has ended up in the web communication fields, I get that although we can grab attention it can be of a limited use and span.

    I think it’s analogous (just an issue of scale), but my experience of people of helping people through extreme personal crises suggests that when people really can’t really think straight (and more importantly their backs were up against the wall), you may need to make a judgment call, and direct them to do things until the crisis is over and their thinking returns. I think this applies to the problem we have in front of us.

    So seeing as we can’t dumb down the science and the complexity, do you have any ideas as to what (as a communicator yourself) you can direct people to do?

    • Paul,

      That’s the question, isn’t it? I think about it a lot, but I don’t really have an answer.

  • Rusty and Paul,

    First, you do as much by example, and generous sharing of information, as you could by passing a whole bunch of laws.

    But second, the plague of our culture is what I think of as “shallow enthusiasm.” Ten years ago it was the Rain Forest: now it’s Pollinators.

    Our politicians know this. Their attention has been directed to a problem, and they must appear to be doing something about it. But without disturbing the special interests (mainly think of agribusiness, but also land developers) that they depend on for campaign finance. So they pass “National Pollinator Week.” It does nothing concrete, but the promoters can say “it raises awareness.” Big whoop.

    Well, thank you, anyway, for making ME aware that it even was Pollinator Week. Now when a customer at Market Saturday asks what I’m doing to observe it, I have an answer ready: Same thing I do all year round: care for my pollinators. If they ask how, they’ll get a longer answer than they want to hear.

    To Paul – it’s a good point, that people are willing to be directed in a crisis. But as long as the supermarkets are piled high with perfect produce (at whatever environmental cost) they just don’t accept that there IS a crisis.

    • Nancy,

      Very insightful comment. Causes cycle in and out of popularity just like toys: Cabbage Patch dolls, Rubik’s cubes, Transformers, Nintendo, Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles. Last year’s causes are so . . . last year. And you are right about the Rainforest: I’d all but forgotten the attention it received several years ago. So sad. Now the slash and burn can continue. It’s ironic too that some of the big chemical companies are donating things like seed packets during pollinator week while they continue to pump out tanker loads of pesticides. Do they really think we’re that gullible?

  • I prepared a long reply to try and address point by point your list of scientific issues, Rusty, but it became too convoluted. And then I saw the four principles of Xerces to Bring back the Pollinators which is the simplest and clearest set of directions I have seen. The challenge still remains however getting people aware and then motivated . . . and which battles to fight. I am starting to work on French farmers that I know.

    Anyway that aside, Nancy, thanks for your generous compliment. As much as we can be worried about perfectly-shaped, chemically layered and tasteless food, I do actually think that the ‘organic’ movement is gaining strength, so I am slightly optimistic.