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Here's Why Pollinators Are Hurting in Idaho

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), Idaho_Xerces Society.jpg
Stephanie McKnight/The Xerces Society
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A Monarch butterfly has a nectar snack on some swamp milkweed.

The landscape of the Treasure Valley is changing as new development replaces farmland and other open spaces, and that can make it tough for bees and butterflies and other pollinators to find the flowering plants they need to survive.

As part of our series, 'No More Birds and Bees: Pollinator Decline in Idaho', we're taking a look at the problem and how you can be a part of the solution.

This week we wanted to dig a bit deeper into pollinator decline. So here's just one example of that--in the last 10 years, the population of monarch butterflies that come to Idaho has dropped by 99%. Yes, you heard that right, 99%.

Mace Vaughan has been with the Xerces Society for 20 years. He is the co-director of their Pollinator Conservation and Agricultural Biodiversity Program. He's also a conservation entomologist and a partner biologist with the USDA/NRCS. And all those titles mean that he and his team of 25 people work to help farmers and ranchers and other folks create and manage habitat for pollinators and other good insects.

Gemma Gaudette: Mace, thanks for joining us today.

Mace Vaughan: Hey, it's a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Gemma Gaudette: So our series on pollinators has said so many times that bees and butterflies are in decline. But why are the Western monarchs in so much trouble?

Mace Vaughan: I think we've got those issues you highlighted early on, where we've lost habitat. We've lost places where they might find nectar or they might find host plants - those milkweed plants that are super important. Monarchs are also unique, though, in that they are one of our few migratory pollinator species, which means they are coming to Idaho--maybe in June-- and laying eggs and raising caterpillars and raising new adults. And at the end of the summer, they fly back to California, and that's where they overwinter as adults along the coast. And so when we lose habitat along the way and when they're overwintering sites--where they gather together in these big roosts-- when those are facing the challenges of climate change and loss of those roosting sites, all of a sudden it's a bit of a perfect storm for that migration.

Did you know that Garden City, Mountain Home, and Twin Falls are “Bee Cities?” They have joined “Bee City USA” to help conserve native bees and their habitat, which also helps other pollinators thrive. Shoshone and Lincoln County have pledged their support of pollinators as well, making a commitment to offer education opportunities, support habitat projects, and reduce the risks of pesticide use in their communities.

Gemma Gaudette: So what about other butterflies in the West? How are they doing?

Mace Vaughan: Well, that's the thing. I mean, monarch butterflies are a really useful canary in the coal mine because everyone sees them. Everyone loves them. We've grown up with them being relatively abundant and to see them decline, it makes us wonder what's going on with the other species. And a new study is just coming out about all butterflies in the western United States. And as we look over the last 40 years, every year there's been a 1.5% decline in the overall population, and that's on average consistently over 40 years. So if you feel like you are seeing fewer butterflies overall, you're not mistaken.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so here's another statistic: beekeepers who keep bumblebees are losing more than 40% of their beehives each year. Do we know why?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Again, I think we tie back to those core issues where those beekeepers and their honey bees are having a harder and harder time finding abundant forage--so abundant nectar, abundant pollen in the landscape. You know, those bees are exposed to pesticides as they are moved around the country. They have their own pests and diseases. And you know, when you take each of these stresses, maybe by themselves, they wouldn't be a problem. But boy, when you stack them one on top of the other, again, you sort of have this combination where honeybees are able to keep up for a while. But now we've kind of gone over a threshold and... boy, beekeeping is just hard now.

Gemma Gaudette: So are there similar reasons as to why we're seeing just such a risk of extinction for all bumblebees around the country?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. So if you look at honeybees, you know, a lot of people, when they think of bees, they just think of honeybees. But of course, if you've been in your garden, you've seen those big fuzzy, usually black and yellow bumblebees and they are probably our best studied native species in the United States. And if we look again across the board across the U.S., about 28% of our bumblebee species-- and there are about 50 species across the U.S.-- 28% of those are in some sort of risk of extinction. And if you look in your own backyard there in Idaho, there are 22 species of bumblebee in the state. And with some expanded monitoring we've been doing in collaboration with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, we know that at least four of those are facing some dramatic declines in their population. And two of which, the Morrison’s bumblebee and the Western Bumblebee, we're particularly concerned about and really keeping an eye on.

Leif Richardson_Xerces Society_Morrison's bumble bee.jpg
Leif Richardson/The Xerces Society
This adorably fuzzy fellow is a Morrison bumble bee. This western North American species has been declining rapidly over the past ten years.

Gemma Gaudette: And why those two in particular? Is it because they are so potentially close to extinction?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah, I think, you know, part of what's driving their decline, we've got again, those issues of loss of habitat. There are also diseases that have been introduced into bumblebee populations and spread around. And so it could be that those species are particularly susceptible to some new diseases in the landscape. But you know, when we take into account all those issues of habitat loss and potential pesticide exposure, but also when we throw in climate change and how that affects where those bees, and the butterflies for that matter, are able to really thrive or to not thrive... that's where we really have a problem.

Gemma Gaudette: So let's talk about what happens when pollinators disappear, I mean, because we know that it hurts birds and even bears and crops, but what about that backyard gardener, right? If we see pollinators disappear, what does that do to our homegrown tomatoes and zucchinis if the bees are gone?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Well, it's actually...starting with the tomatoes is really great because boy, if you grow tomatoes, you want to see bumblebees on those flowers. So when we see a decline, when we see a loss of these animals across, you know, in our gardens, not to mention our farms, you're going to be seeing smaller tomatoes, fewer tomatoes, you're going to be seeing smaller squash. Maybe seeing smaller zucchini is a good thing because you are just constantly putting it on your neighbor's porch. It's a problem ecologically if we're seeing smaller zucchini. Not to mention less tree fruit, less alfalfa seed production, less canola seed production, fewer sunflower seeds. And when we don't have these animals in our garden pollinating, that's a sign that we don't have good insects in the garden or in the landscape that are also just so important for, you know, for songbirds, for those other wildlife you talked about.

You can plant pesticide-free wildflowers, native wildflowers and native beautiful ornamental plants that you know are going to be good for pollinators and not only beautify your yard, beautify your garden, beautify your neighborhood--but also bring wildlife.
Mace Vaughan, Xerces Society

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so we know things like growth and climate change, drought, pesticides...those are big issues and they are hurting pollinators. But these are challenges that can be overwhelming for the average person. So can we talk about what one person or what one family can do to help bees and butterflies? I mean, for example, is it true that a lot of us are actually poisoning the nectar in our flowers without knowing it?

Mace Vaughan: I think it can be. That is certainly a possibility. A lot of the pesticides, particularly the insecticides that we may be using or that folks may be encouraging us to use around our homes, some of those are what we call systemic, which means when you put them on the ground or put them on a plant, they get taken up into that plant, which means that that poison can come out in the pollen and nectar. So that's something we've really got to be cautious about. And I understand when people want to control the pests in their gardens and the pests on their farms. And we need to be sensitive to that--but really as targeted as possible and do our best to understand what those risks are and how we can basically minimize or reduce those risks in the landscape. So I do think that's a really important consideration people need to take.

Gemma Gaudette: And then what about things like planting flowers to help pollinators? I mean, is that something that people can do that frankly it doesn't take a lot of time and it doesn't cost a lot of money.

Mace Vaughan: I have to admit this is the one reason I love my job. You know, we were talking about the big issues of climate change and pesticides. People become overwhelmed. I become overwhelmed. And that's where it's exciting that you can take action at home and actually see a tangible result. You know, you can plant pesticide-free wildflowers, native wildflowers and native beautiful ornamental plants that you know are going to be good for pollinators and not only beautify your yard, beautify your garden, beautify your neighborhood--but also bring wildlife. These tiny little wildlife and butterflies and bees right to your front yard where you can watch them and see what they do. Watch the birds come and feed on the seeds afterwards, or even eat the occasional bee. You know, you can see this, and I don't know...it's like you're bringing life home and you're able to be a part of it. It becomes part of your landscape and it helps. All of that helps.

Gemma Gaudette: I have to say I've never seen so many deer in my backyard as I have this last year. And they like certain little flowers. We should note that Mace, you're going to be back next week on our Pollinator Series because we want to talk about the flowers that are best suited for the Treasure Valley and the Magic Valley that you can help plant to help bees and butterflies. I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with us about this.

Mace Vaughan: Oh, it's a real pleasure. Thanks for having me. I'm glad you guys are doing this. Really appreciate it.

If you didn’t get a chance to take part in the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project, the Ada Soil & Water Conservation District is bringing it back next year. In the meantime, here are just a handful of other citizen science projects Mace Vaughan with the Xerces Society recommends:

  1. If bumblebees are your thing, why not help track them through the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas? You can look for all kinds of bumble bees, including the Franklin's bumble bee, the western bumble bee, Morrison's bumble bee, and the Suckley cuckoo bumble bee! It's a community science project of Xerces, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Oregon Bee Project, Oregon Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) . Community scientists helping Xerces and our partners understand the distribution and status of bumble bees in the Pacific Northwest.
  2. Western Monarch and Milkweed Mapper (a community science project of Xerces, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation). Community scientists helping Xerces and our partners understand the distribution and status of monarch butterflies, monarch caterpillars, and milkweed in the western U.S.
  3. The Xerces Society also has a Pollinator Program you can join.
  4. And if you really love those beautiful Monarch butterflies, check out Western Monarch Conservation where you can help map Monarchs and milkweed.
Samantha Wright is a news reporter and producer for Idaho Matters.