Protecting Pollinators: A Conversation with Jodi Helmer

Birds, bats, insects, and many other pollinators are disappearing, putting entire ecosystems in jeopardy. In North America and Europe, bee and butterfly populations have plummeted by a third or more. Worldwide, half of the 200,000 species of pollinators are threatened. Threats to pollinators abound, but so too do the everyday conservation efforts being taken to protect them.

Protecting Pollinators: How to Save the Creatures that Feed Our World explores why pollinator decline has become so dire and how it can be reversed. In it, author Jodi Helmer offers a hopeful vision for the future of pollinators—not just the iconic monarch and dainty hummingbird, but the drab hawk moth and homely bats that are just as essential. We sat down with Jodi Helmer to discuss pollinators, thier decline, and conservation efforts. Have more questions for Jodi Helmer? Share them in the comments below.

Protecting Pollinators Book cover

What inspired your passion for pollinators? How has your experiences as a beekeeper informed your writing? Why did you decide to write Protecting Pollinators?

My passion for pollinators started in the garden. I love growing things, especially fruits, vegetables, and herbs, which would be impossible without the bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators. Our first beehives were set up next to our raised garden beds and it was so amazing to see the honey bees foraging for nectar and pollen among the cucumbers, peppers, melons, and strawberries. The garden provided food for the bees; the bees provided food for us, both in terms of pollinating the flowers so fruits and vegetables would grow and turning the nectar from the plants into honey. All of my favorite foods, including tea, chocolate, apples, and almonds depend on pollinators.

Being a beekeeper hasn’t made me a better writer, but being a writer has made me a better beekeeper. I’ve had the great fortune to interview beekeepers and scientists about the latest research, trends, and what’s happening in the field; their expertise has been the basis for articles and managing our hives.

When Emily Turner, an editor at Island Press, approached me about writing Protecting Pollinators, I was eager to dig into the latest research and talk to passionate scientists, farmers, and conservationists to learn more about bees (and other pollinators) so I’d be a better beekeeper, gardener, and environmentalist.

Of all the threats pollinators face that you discuss in Protecting Pollinators, which obstacle do you think is the most dire? Where have you seen the most progress?

I don’t think it’s possible to rank the threats from most to least dire; the threats—invasive species, pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change—are often intertwined and each one needs to be addressed to help restore pollinator populations. Climate change might be the most difficult to address because, while habitat can be restored, pesticide use can be reduced and invasive species can be removed, it’s impossible to turn down the thermostat on the planet. In terms of progress, a lot of exciting habitat restoration projects have been completed (or are underway) and there is widespread interest in establishing pollinator habitat among farmers, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and governments.

You identify agriculture as one of the biggest threats to pollinators because of habitat loss and pesticide exposure. What would it take to mitigate this damage? Do we need a wholesale change to our food system?

Agriculture is both a major threat to pollinators and has the greatest potential to have a positive impact on pollinator populations and health. Initiatives to mitigate the damage are already happening: farmers are planting pollinator habitat, establishing conservation easements, and adopting minimal tilling or no till practices to protect nesting sites. Pesticides are also a hot button issue and conservation groups advocate for reductions or bans in controversial pesticides, especially neonicotinoids. The combination of creating habitat and reducing pesticide use would help mitigate the damage. There are myriad reasons we need a wholesale change to our food system and pollinator protection is among them.

Creatures like monarch butterflies and honey bees have become the face of pollinator conservation. How do you get people interested in less glamourous or well know species that provide such an essential ecological service?

Awareness is so important: We need to foster an understanding of the important role all pollinators play in our ecosystem, even the less colorful, less attractive species. Conservation programs that introduce people to these less glamorous species can help create a connection; explaining that bats are essential pollinators of the agave plant (that makes tequila) can go a long way to getting people interested in saving them!

Native plants are essential sources of nutrition and provide habitat for pollinators. However, the general public can lack information about how to identify native plants or might prefer landscaping aesthetics that use non-native species. What would you say to change this perception or persuade people to value native plants and their benefits for pollinator species?

One of the best things about the growing awareness of the importance of pollinators is the corresponding uptick in interest in native plants. A simple Google (or Pinterest) search will lead gardeners to a ton of resources for selecting native plants. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org) has an amazing Native Plant Database that recommends species for each state. Local garden groups, extension offices, and botanical gardens often host native plant sales where you can find a selection of plants native to your growing region.

Ideally, every person that reads Protecting Pollinators will be motivated to engage in citizen science projects, plant pollinator friendly gardens, or avoid pesticides, and have the ability to do so. However, not everyone will have the ability to take significant action. What are the smallest actions a person can take to make a difference?

Plant something. When I toured the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, horticulturalist Andrea DeLong-Amaya described our yards as a series of patches in a quilt: Each one provides essential habitat and when we all do our part to create habitat, it comes together to create one large space that helps pollinators thrive. 

You feature inspiring stories of revival—and lessons from failed projects—ranging from cities creating butterfly highways to citizen scientists monitoring migration. Is there a particular conservation initiative or story that stands out to you?

I heard so many great stories in the course of researching the book! The one that most speaks to the message of the book, I think, was the story of a citizen scientist named Elaine Tucker who started volunteering from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project because she loved monarch butterflies. She was such an enthusiastic ambassador for the species and proof that non-scientists play a critical role in understanding pollinator populations.  

Did you learn anything in the course of writing this book that surprised you?

I learned so much from researching and writing this book. One of the things that stands out is the commitment farmers have shown to protecting pollinators. Commercial scale agriculture is a significant contributor to pollinator decline but farmers also have the greatest potential to make a difference by planting pollinator habitat, including milkweed, reducing pesticide use and choosing sustainable production methods—and many are stepping up to help.

What do you hope people take away from this book?

I hope that readers walk away with a greater understanding of the threats facing pollinators and a sense of hope that pollinator decline can be reversed if we all do our part to make a difference.