Some native pollinators could become extinct in NYS; you can help

bumble bee on Joe Pye weed in Amherst New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

More than one-third of native pollinators in a recent survey are at risk of becoming extinct in New York State.

“It is a sobering finding,” said Erin White, zoologist and project coordinator with New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP).

The recently released Empire State Native Pollinator Survey 2017-2021 confirms concerns about the health of some pollinator populations in New York State, but there are things we gardeners can do to turn things around.

Some findings about native pollinators

The goal of the Empire State Native Pollinator Survey 2017-2021 was to determine the conservation status of a wide array of native insect pollinators. They included four groups of bees, two groups of flies, two groups of beetles and two groups of moths. (Butterflies were not included because the current status of butterflies is better understood than the status of the other species.)

There is some good news: The survey documented 16 native bee and fly species for the first time in New York State. The insects may have been here, but there were no records until this survey was conducted.

There is some bad news, too: The survey couldn’t find 79 native pollinator species that were previously recorded in New York State.

More bad news: Between 38 and 60 percent of the species studied are potentially imperiled or critically imperiled.

“I hope this will prompt swift conservation actions to benefit these species,” White said.

Monitoring our native pollinators may be the only way to know whether we are maintaining New York’s important pollinators in the face of continuing global change, according to the survey. Findings from the survey provide the foundation for future pollinator research and conservation efforts.

Why this survey is a big deal

How are native insect pollinators doing in New York State? The survey gives us a better idea.

Native insect pollinators are important to gardens, agriculture and our entire ecosystem.

“Knowing the extent of peril our native species face is the first step in developing a conservation plan to not only preserve the pollinator population but restore it as well,” said Dr. Melissa Fierke, chair, professor, and director at Cranberry Lake Biological Station at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The Empire State Native Pollinator Survey 2017-2021 took place over several years and studied 451 species of native pollinators across the state.

A large team was assembled by the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) that included experts from:

  • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
  • State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
  • Cornell University, SUNY Cobleskill
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Museum of Natural History
  • New York State Museum, Vermont Center for Ecostudies
  • Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

During the project, biologists conducted hundreds of field surveys across the state, compiled data from museum collections, and reviewed observations from citizen scientists.

Hundreds of volunteers provided tens of thousands of insect specimens, photographs, and observations. In total, biologists gathered more than 230,000 insect records. Using data from the study, NYNHP scientists generated maps of current and historical distributions and seasonal observation charts for 451 species.

The survey “is truly an outstanding model that should serve as an example for other states as they assess the status of their pollinators,” said Dr. Carmen Greenwood, Associate Professor of Fisheries, Wildlife and Environmental Science at SUNY Cobleskill. “The fact that so many of these species are potentially imperiled or too sparse to make a determination of their status supports the critical importance of assessing these animals and continuing to assess their status into the future.”

How gardeners can help native pollinators

“One of the big things gardeners can do is to provide native floral resources throughout the season (early spring to fall),” White said, “so a variety of natives would offer blooms at different times.”

Make your gardens into a three-season landscape–and include native plants in every season. (Yes, you can have a great landscape even when garden walks are over or haven’t yet begun!)

When we think of plants, we often think of annuals and perennials–herbaceous plants. Go beyond that and consider native shrubs and trees, too, she said.

“Every little bit helps, especially as more and more landowners manage properties to promote native biodiversity,” White added.

Here are some ways to learn what plants are native in Western New York:

It’s getting easier to buy native plants.

Here are more ways gardeners can help native insect pollinators:

  • Reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. Pesticides and other chemical poisons have known negative effects on nontarget species like native pollinators. A recent report on the costs and benefits of pesticides containing neonicotinoids in New York State (Grout et al. 2020) constitutes the most complete review of studies to date. While neonicotinoids do not always appear to affect bees, the precautionary principle suggests that their use should be avoided when possible for the conservation of native species.
  • Control invasive species. Although some invasive plants provide nectar sources for pollinators, our native pollinators have co-evolved with native plants over thousands of years and many will not forage on invasives. Invasive plants can also outcompete native plants and create a monoculture. These monocultures provide a short-lived pulse of floral resources whereas many pollinators require nectar sources throughout the spring, summer, and into the fall. Most of the species using invasives are habitat generalists and tend to be more widespread.
  • Reimagine mowing. Raising the mower bed or otherwise allowing vegetation to remain higher will protect nesting habitat for ground-nesters. (Does your town do roadside mowing? You could suggest that your municipality curtail roadside mowing to a great degree. Mowing could be timed for seasons with lower pollinator activity, for example, in late fall). And mowing could be staggered to maintain floral resources year-round to benefit pollinators.)
  • Convert lawns and other biological deserts into pollinator habitat. This can be used in your backyard as well as in natural habitats surrounded by development.
  • Minimize unnecessary outdoor lighting. Many native moths are attracted to artificial lights, which change normal travel and foraging behaviors. Minimize lighting to maintain dark sky conditions. In areas where artificial lighting is necessary, use sodium lights or other low ultraviolet lamps or consider motion sensor lights if appropriate.

If you have a large property, check out the suggestions on burning to maintain open habitat, forested areas and wetlands on pages 37 and 38 of the survey. (Also see information on high density of honey bee hives. Honey bees may transmit disease or parasites to native bees and outcompete them, but this issue is localized with backyard hives.)

Pesticides also represent one of many factors that stress pollinators, and neonicotinoids, in particular, have been identified as a group of pesticides that, in general, are highly toxic to pollinators. Reducing pesticide use is another key way to help pollinators and earlier this year, DEC announced actions to limit the unrestricted use of pesticides that can harm bee and other pollinator populations. DEC is reclassifying certain products containing the neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticides imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and acetamiprid as “restricted use” to ensure applications are limited to trained pesticide applicators in specific situations. Restricting the use of these pesticides enables DEC to collect new data to determine where, when, and how they are used, as well as their potential impacts. 

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