Columnist Johanna Neumann: Important to protect the pollinators

Published: 8/15/2018 8:29:26 PM

Fresh, locally produced food is part of what makes late summer in the Pioneer Valley so wonderful. Farm-fresh mozzarella. Heirloom tomatoes. Lush bundles of basil.

With crisp apples, and so much more to come, it’s worth reflecting on how lucky we are to live in a place that produces so much mouth-watering food.

In our family, the irresistible combination of vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries topped with Herrell’s chocolate sauce is known as the “Elixir of Life.” And the unsung heroes behind it and so much of the food we love are bees and other pollinators. 

I bore witness to the miracle of pollination firsthand last weekend as I took in the sights and sounds in my in-laws’ garden. In the afternoon sun, the raspberry patch was literally humming — it looked like the world’s busiest airport. Hundreds if not thousands of bees jockeyed for position on the raspberry blossoms, the hairs on their legs laden with bright yellow pollen. Thanks to their tireless efforts, we’ll be plucking tart and sweet raspberries in a few weeks.

It’s not just raspberries. Bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that supply 90 percent of most of the world’s food. Without bees we wouldn’t have broccoli, peaches, apples, or — egad! — chocolate or coffee. Without bees, who would pollinate alfalfa, one of the main crops on which dairy cows feed? 

Unfortunately, as the internet meme tells us, bees are dying at an alarming rate. In March, a national beekeeper survey reported that 40 percent of honeybee colonies died last winter. That’s up by a third from the previous year and a dramatic increase from historic norms. 

The pollinator die-off problem is so bad that some tech companies are developing and patenting miniature robotic drones to try to fill the void. Technological solutions like robot bees may be necessary in the future, but the ecologist in me believes there are lots of reasons we should actually protect the real thing.

Scientists point to global warming, habitat loss, parasites, and a class of bee-killing insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics) as the biggest causes of declining bee populations. We’ll need action on all these fronts to protect these amazing creatures and the foods we love.

Chemically treating seeds with neonics, which are 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT, to increase production may be justifiable if we didn’t have enough food to go around and increasing production were the only way to prevent starvation. But total food production is not the key problem. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, roughly one-third of all the food that humans produce globally gets lost or wasted each year, much of it fresh produce. The report points to lack of coordination between actors in the supply chain as a key factor, not a lack of supply.  

The bee die-offs should be a signal that it’s time to change how we approach things. 

More sustainable food production models exist. One need look no further than some of our local biodynamic farms that yield abundant and delicious food, support pollinators, and leave our air, land and water healthier than before they were farmed. These success stories should give us confidence that a healthy ecosystem that supports pollinators and abundant food production can go hand-in-hand.

There are glimmers of recognition at the national and corporate level about the need to protect pollinators. The European Union recently voted to ban all outdoor application of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides, and Canada plans to phase out most outdoor and agricultural uses of these pesticides.

On the corporate side, bulk purchasing giant Costco updated its pollinator policy in June to encourage suppliers to not use neonicotinoids on fruits, vegetables, and garden plants. And Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, committed to eliminate neonics on its garden plants by 2020. These are small but meaningful steps toward a healthier food system and ecosystem.

Ultimately, all politics is local. We can take individual steps and push for systemic action to help protect pollinators. If you garden, ask your plant supplier for plants not treated with neonics. If you have a mowed lawn, recognize that frequently mowed lawns are the equivalent of deserts for pollinators. Not mowing a portion of your lawn and dedicating it as habitat for beneficial insects like bees, or even mowing less frequently, can make a big difference.

And ask your local elected officials what they are doing to protect the pollinators and urge them to act. Visible local action will help spur state lawmakers to act next session.

The pollinators, the unsung heroes who bring us delicious foods like the “Elixir of Life,” will be grateful for your efforts, and so will all of us who love to feast on the bounty of the season.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, is an organizer and activist and has spent the past 20 years working to protect our air, water and open space, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at


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