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Insects play a vital role in the survival of an array of wildflowers, cropsInsects play a vital role in the survival of an array of wildflowers, crops

Many valuable insects, notably honeybees and monarch butterflies, face threats on multiple fronts.

Walt Davis 1

December 20, 2016

3 Min Read

For Jennifer Hopwood, a love of wildflowers, the outdoors and insects goes back to the influence of her grandmother in her childhood.

"My grandmother loved the outdoors, her garden and her wildflowers, and I got my fascination with insects from her," she told members and guests of the Kansas Rural Center during a Farm and Food Conference in Manhattan.

Hopwood grew up to seek a career that matched her passions for flowers and for the insects that pollinate not only the wildflowers, but also dozens of human and animal food crops. She is a senior pollinator and conservation specialist for the Xerces Society, an organization devoted to protecting the habitat of invertebrates and many of the endangered species in their ranks.

"More than 85% of flowering plants require an animal, mostly insects, to move pollen," she told conference attendees. "Fruits and seeds are a product of pollinators, and the insects themselves are a major part of the diets of birds and other animals."

The connections of pollinators in the food chain are myriad and complex, she said.

"Grizzly bears consume army cutworms," she said. "Dairy cows eat alfalfa that is pollinated by insects."

Butterflies, with their long tongues, are pollinators for a specific suite of wildflowers, and moths help pollinate plants that have deep structures to their blooms, she explained.

Flies are important pollinators in alpine areas where their larvae eat the aphids that attack trees.

Perhaps no pollinator is better known — or more important — than the European honeybee. It is found throughout the world and was brought to America by European settlers more than 400 years ago. Honeybees have been domesticated and are prized for their honey and their wax, which have been valuable to humans centuries.

However, Hopwood said, there are more than 3,600 species of native bees that provide their own services to dozens of other plants and crops.

Some bees are solitary insects, others live in colonies, she said. But all of them fill an important niche in the overall health of the environment.

Hopwood encouraged the Rural Center members to join the fight to improve the environment to wild pollinators by planting habitat and avoiding the use of pesticides.

"About 25% of North American bumblebees are at risk of extinction, and in Kansas 4 of 11 species are at risk, while moths and butterflies are also in decline," she said.

Monarch butterflies have been declining at the rate of about 9% a year and have reached a level that puts the annual migration at risk.

The loss of breeding habitat, especially milkweed plants, has devastated populations, but extreme weather events have also played a role, Hopwood said.

The Xerces Society is engaged with other conservation organizations in a massive effort to try to help monarchs recover, she said. The goal is the planting of 1.5 billion stems of milkweed throughout the Midwest, where the bulk of the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico come from.

Urban dwellers as well as farmers can help provide habitat for pollinators by planting native plants and flowers in the landscapes and looking for opportunities to provide food — pollen and nectar — as well as shelter, a safe place to nest and overwinter, and a safe haven from pesticides, she said.

WILD POLLINATORS: This slide showing a mining bee on a peach blossom was one of the slides in a presentation by Xerces Society conservationist Jennifer Hopwood at the Kansas Rural Center Farm and Food Conference. 

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