Lauren R. Stevens: Bees are our friends, and need our help

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Joan Edwards, a biologist at Williams College, and her students, have patiently filmed the great variety of bees, ants, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles and others that transfer pollen to the female reproductive organs of a flower, weed, fruit or vegetable, thereby enabling fertilization. In this way the critters sustain human life and provide it with a beautiful context. Edwards reports that "All measures indicate pollinator loss."

Something of a pollinator herself, having appeared before several town boards and groups, she and other citizens hope that Williamstown will join Great Barrington and other Western Massachusetts towns, becoming "pollinator friendly" by a non-binding vote at Town Meeting, May 16.

Bees, wild and managed, are the most important group of pollinators. Their services to humans extend far beyond providing honey. According to Nature magazine, December 2016, "an estimated 5-8 percent of global crop production would be lost without pollination." Seventy-five percent of most fruits, seeds and nuts, including coffee, cocoa and oilseed rape (canolla) would disappear. With a burgeoning world population, this is not the time to lose crops.

The Nature article reports that although pollinator data is patchy, "evidence is clear that several species have reduced their geographical ranges, a handful have gone extinct, and many have shown declines in local abundance."     

The decrease in pollinators is attributed to habitat loss, as the landscape becomes more developed; climate change that disrupts patterns of animal life; and pesticides, including insecticides and herbicides. Efforts to control annoying insects and weeds often have the result of killing pollinators.

Thus it is a local as well as a global problem — and can be treated locally. The resolution, placed on the ballot by citizens' petition, asks residents to avoid "the planting of flowering plants which are treated with systemic herbicides, . . seeds coated with systemic neonicotinoids, . . homeowner applications of pesticides that require a neighbor notification flag," . . and "nonagricultural usage of glyhposate products (e.g. Roundup)."

Another approach is to encourage more plants that benefit pollinators. The resolution asks residents to re-envision their lawns, such as planting clover instead of grass and "welcoming naturally occurring, low-growing wildflowers." Edwards is particularly enthusiastic about what some owners regard as a bane: dandelions. She describes how clever they are in bending under the mower and springing up again afterwards.

Reducing the frequency and increasing the height of lawn mowing, which can be negotiated between landowner and lawn service, can encourage sources of pollen. Reducing field mowing can help. Edwards urges sparing goldenrod, incorrectly thought to be the source of hay fever, but highly beneficial to pollinators when supplies are low, late in the season.

Reducing pesticides, encouraging flowers, especially natives, and mowing less frequently would seem to be minor adjustments that people can make to benefit The Bees & Company.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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