Little Wings, Big Waves: How Bees Clean Our Waterways
by Erin Zaske, Chief Development Officer
Next time you stop to smell the flowers, thank a pollinator. Pollinators are the reason for the show-stopping beauty and fragrance we associate with floral blooms. However, before systematic biotic pollination or the involvement of living organisms in the pollination process, flowering plants lacked the draws of our existing ornamental idea of flowers. This can be seen to this day in abiotic pollinating flowers or those that primarily use wind and water rather than animals during the pollination process. These flowers are often small, without petals, vibrant colors, scents, or nectar, all characteristics that evolved to draw in pollinators. Instead, abiotic pollinating plants typically rely on massive amounts of smooth, light, and easily airborne pollen. The difference between abiotic and biotic pollinating flowers is apparent when comparing the flower characteristics of corn, rye, pine trees, and firs versus sunflowers, poppies, orchids, and summer lilacs.
While the evolution of exquisite flowers is a benefit, pollinators have provided much more. The mutual relationship between pollinators and pollen-producing plants grants pollinators easy access and nutrient-rich food sources, including pollen and nectar, while also offering a more efficient and energy-saving reproduction process. Today, it is estimated that between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants rely on pollinators, equating to more than 180,000 different plant species and 1,200 crops . Research published in the Applied Ecology and Environmental Research Journal estimates through the act of pollinating vital crops, the annual value of services provided by insect pollinators in the United States surpassed $15 billion in 2009 . A solitary mason bee can pollinate upwards of 50,000 flowers in a single season .
Despite their importance in our everyday lives, pollinator populations continue to decline. Species are currently going extinct 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate, or about one species-extinction every 20 minutes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations . The FAO estimates that 40% of all invertebrate pollinator species, mostly butterfly and bee species, face extinction, with 1 in 6 bee species regionally extinct .
When you hear the saying "save the bees," you most likely think of fuzzy, black and yellow, honey-producing, comb-living honeybees. However, these are not the bees in the greatest need of help. Most honeybees are considered semi- or fully domesticated animals not at risk of extinction, and unbeknownst to many, are not native to North America . The United States does have 4,000 native bee species in need of saving, many of which are solitary bee species that do not form colonies or produce honey. These species are the drivers of wildlife pollination in the United States, with one native leafcutter bee offering the pollination power of 20 non-native bees . Still, imported bee species are considered significant competitors of native species and a possible secondary factor contributing to native bee population declines .
Habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the expansion of "ecologically barren" grass lawns and fields, urban sprawl, failure to prioritize green infrastructure and spaces during urban development, excessive use of pesticides, invasive species, and even the subtle shifts of breeding and bloom seasons due to climate change are the major factors creating an uphill battle pollinators must fight to survive . While many challenges must be tackled to help regenerate pollinator populations, individuals' efforts can have a lasting impact on pollinators and future generations. One such solution can be establishing pollinator gardens that combat many of the primary challenges pollinators are facing with one grand swoop.
Pollinator gardens prioritize pollinator-friendly flowering plants to attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other prominent pollinators. They support and establish local habitats while providing pollinators with abundant food sources and supporting native plant diversity. In recent years, private gardens have become a recognized sustainability effort due to their potential contribution to pollinator conservation by providing diverse, flowering habitats . By planting vegetation native to local areas, the species are already adapted to local soil and climate, eliminating the need for fertilizers and other additives that can harm the environment. While exotic plants may appear more pollinator-friendly with larger or more vibrant flowers, evidence published in the Applied Ecology and Environmental Research Journal indicates native plants typically harbor greater pollinator abundance and pollination .
Homeowners can establish pollinator gardens within their private yards and incorporate pollinator-friendly plants within gardens, doing their part to support pollinator populations at the individual level. Businesses and facilities with green spaces, including fields, bio swells, or stormwater basins, can also increase their environmental stewardship by implementing pollinator gardens into pre-existing green spaces. Stormwater assets are a great place to allow native, non-impairing flowering vegetation to grow in support of pollinating species. These assets typically involve open fields with nutrient-rich water, a great environment in which pollinator-friendly vegetation can thrive.
In return, these plants support stormwater assets by acting as a physical filter for macro-pollutants, absorb micro-pollutants, stabilizing banks and offering erosion control through complex root systems, and supporting an overall healthier, more diverse ecosystem while minimizing the need for expensive synthetic systems. By preventing erosion through root systems and dispersing the impact of rainfall with their foliage, flowering plants directly reduce the number of sediments reaching our waterways . Encouraging the presence of pollinators also brings in other, larger wildlife that feeds on pollinators. These insect-eating predators include frogs and lizards that are efficient, natural pest and mosquito control. These gardens can drive traffic and awareness to businesses through beautification, pollinator education, and an evident form of environmental stewardship for property owners. Wholistically, the water cycle relies on plant transpiration to release water into the atmosphere, and plants depend on pollinators to reproduce .
This mutual relationship between pollinator gardens and stormwater assets inspired AQUALIS to take action in support of pollinators. Recognizing pollinators' importance in supporting healthy ecosystems, and therefore helping drive AQUALIS' mission of protecting our most precious natural resource: water, AQUALIS' ROOT FOR NATURE™ pilot program was launched in 2019 to support declining pollinator populations. Within the first year alone, AQUALIS worked with multiple clients to install and maintain over a dozen pollinator gardens within stormwater assets and has begun implementing pollinator meadows.
Dedicated to maintaining water quality, all pollinator gardens AQUALIS maintains are herbicide and pesticide-free, weeded by hand, and work in harmony with the compliance standards of our partners. A single garden can have 30-40 native plants, including threatened species, to increase vegetation diversity to help the gardens thrive. By establishing a multi-tier habitat comprised of various flowering species, a sustainable food source is created for pollinators by providing a single site that consistently has blooms throughout the season. Sensitive species, including dragonflies, have been documented at AQULAIS-maintained pollinator gardens, one of the many signs that gardens create healthy ecosystems. AQUALIS' efforts have shown how easily pollinator gardens can be adopted and how significant the impact can be on pollinator populations. Since beginning our work, interest in pollinator gardens among corporations we service has continued to rise.
Through our efforts and partnerships, AQUALIS has inspired 250+ pollinator gardens to be installed across the nation. Working with city erosion leads, county environmental specialists, state departments of ecology, and related stakeholders, AQUALIS' pollinator gardens drive holistic ecologic goals to support downstream stakeholders.
Next time you see a pollinator-friend buzzing around, take a second to appreciate the hard work they are doing to support plants, animals, and even our waterways. Their little wings make a big impact.
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