Biodiversity: More Than a Buzz Word

By Karen Heymann, Heidi Ricci, and Christina Wiseman

A rapid decline in pollinators like bees, birds, butterflies, and bats is threatening biodiversity both globally and here at home.  The thousands of plant-pollinator interactions that sustain our food supply and natural environment are under threat by multiple, interacting factors including habitat loss, pesticide use, invasive species, disease, and climate change.

To address this growing crisis, President Obama introduced in 2014 a national strategy to protect pollinators. States are coordinating with federal agencies to develop statewide Pollinator Protection Plans to address some of the threats facing these species. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) has released its own draft plan, on which Mass Audubon recently commented.  We recommended that the proposed approach be expanded with strategies to benefit both wild and managed pollinators, thereby supporting both agricultural and natural ecosystems.

Photo credit: Zeynel Cebeci

Photo credit: Zeynel Cebeci

The Pollination Problem

Inadequate pollination can result in reduced or delayed yields and inferior fruits. Widespread declines in honeybee populations – 44 percent of colonies last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture – has raised alarm bells not only among farmers who rent beehives for their fields but the general public and government officials as well. As a result, awareness is growing over the economic, environmental and public health impacts of biodiversity loss, with particular attention given to honeybee health.

Biodiversity is often used in a very broad context, but it is more than just a buzz word. It refers to the many components of biological diversity that comprise our agricultural and natural systems. This diversity encompasses the rich variety of genetic resources we rely on directly (crops, wild edible plants, trees, and pasture and rangeland animal species) as well as indirectly (organisms that drive nutrient cycling and pollination, and abiotic factors like local climate conditions). The often overlooked — but perhaps most critical — component of biodiversity includes the human activities and management practices that shape our natural and agricultural systems.

Wild lupine is native to Massachusetts and helps attract bees and butterflies. Photo credit: Aaron Carlson

The rapid conversion of open space to development over the past century has redefined our landscape and resulted in a dramatic decline in natural habitat. Massachusetts is home to hundreds of species of flowering plants and wild pollinators including bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats.  Genetic diversity – in this case, supporting more diverse populations of bees and other pollinators – in both nature and modern agriculture reduces the chances of population or crop failure and ensures greater survival rates, since not all species are vulnerable to the same diseases or stressors.

Honeybee declines are just one symptom of a larger epidemic of global biodiversity loss and a catastrophic result of poor management of earth’s genetic resources, the environment and our agricultural systems. They also serve to highlight the importance of adopting policies that promote sound land management and limit harmful practices like overuse of pesticides or monoculture planting.

Photo credit: Alec Perkins

Photo credit: Alec Perkins

Better Land Management Can Make the Difference

Policy makers, state agencies, non-profits and private landowners now have an opportunity to improve biodiversity management in the Commonwealth by integrating commercial and wild pollinator stewardship.  Adopting more pollinator-friendly land management practices reduces reliance on already-stressed managed bees by attracting more wild pollinators. Native pollinator conservation efforts can be better coordinated across state agencies and integrated with statewide land management goals. This would help to identify and accomplish overlapping conservation and farmland production goals, particularly where opportunities exist to leverage state and federal funding resources.

The Commonwealth can enhance these available tools:

  • Pass legislation to increase the state conservation tax incentive for donations of land, currently oversubscribed for 2016, from $2 million to $5 million
  • Direct already authorized capital land conservation dollars (e.g. LAND, PARC grants) toward pollinator habitat protection
  • Target federal funding including Farm Bill conservation programs to promote pollinator habitat
  • Establish a special commission on pollinator health with broad stakeholder involvement, including conservation groups focused on biodiversity and wild pollinator health
  • Promote state agency education programs for beekeepers, pesticide applicators, land managers and the general public in protecting pollinator health
  • Promote state funding incentives for managing farmland as part of a continuous agroecosystem, including diverse habitats suitable for native pollinators such as deciduous and coniferous forest, open meadow, wetland and riparian areas

An Eastern tailed-blue pollinates goldenrod. Photo credit: John Flannery

From your yard and garden to the landscaping choices of commercial businesses, municipalities, and state agencies, there are myriad opportunities to protect and restore pollinators and habitats across the state.  These practices also improve the resiliency of our natural landscape, making it less susceptible to the environmental stressors associated with climate change.

Pollinators are vital to the economy, agriculture, and ecology not only of Massachusetts but across the globe. We need to take every step we can to ensure that their populations – along with the plants and crops they support – can flourish.

Karen Heymann is Legislative Director
Heidi Ricci is Senior Policy Analyst
Christina Wiseman is Advocacy Associate