Pollinator populations are plummeting on every continent except Antarctica - and no pollinators means no food for us. Well, perhaps that's a bit extreme. We could probably get by on ferns and lichens and the occasional caribou steak --since they, too, subsist on lichens -- but absent the world's flowering plants, the ecology of the planet would be so different that counting on an Inuit lifestyle to save our butts seems pretty iffy.
The most immediately critical problem is the decline of both domestic and native honeybees. "Bees, via pollination, are responsible for 15 percent to 30 percent of the food U.S. consumers eat," National Geographic News reported in its Oct. 5, 2004, issue. "But in the last 50 years, the domesticated honeybee population - which most farmers depend on for pollination - has declined by about 50 percent."
Note that this refers only to the bees' pivotal role in pollinating certain specific food crops. But all flowering plants require a transfer of pollen, and while a few species are wind-pollinated, most rely on animals for fertilization.
In the United States, the recent decline in bee numbers is due partly to the introduction of non-native mites that have swept through the domestic population, wiping out whole colonies and weakening others.
But bees, like all other pollinator species, have also been hit hard by pesticide use and habitat loss. Although farmers have learned not to apply pesticides when crops are flowering (and bees are present in large numbers), homeowners are generally less aware of the crisis and may thus be less selective in their use of such poisons.
Nor is the pesticide threat limited to bug sprays. Herbicides have wiped out large numbers of flowering plants considered to be weeds. A lawn without dandelions, plantain, chickweed, Indian paintbrush, goldenrod or dozens of other so-called weed species doesn't offer pollinators much in the way of edibles. It's important to remember that human food crops supply only a portion of the bees' diet - and these insects also need sustenance when our crops aren't blooming.
"Bees require large, continuously connected areas of suitable habitat. However, human cultivation and urbanization often fragment these habitats into small islands," according to Biological Diversity 2001, an online publication of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.
As to the direct effect on our lunch boxes, Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at Princeton University, told National Geographic that "Unless actions are taken to slow the decline of domesticated honeybees and augment their populations with wild bees, many fruits and vegetables may disappear from the food supply."
The best way home gardeners can help bolster bee numbers is simply by choosing not to eliminate weeds in lawns and on the periphery of garden beds. Encourage a diversity of wildflowers by planting native perennials instead of imported species. Use organic and biological pest controls rather than poisons that kill the good guys along with the baddies. Remember, too, that hand-picking the caterpillars, slugs, Japanese beetles and other invaders is not only effective but keeps you intimately in touch with your plants' health and development.
This brings to mind the advice attributed to permaculturist Masanobu Fukuoka about such close attention: "The best fertilizer is a gardener's shadow." And when it comes to nontoxic pesticides, your hands, your brain and your shadow constitute an unbeatable combination.