This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 27, 2008 - Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt didn't make headlines when he proclaimed June 22-28 "Pollinators' Week," but the gesture was a victory for the little guy: the hundreds of thousands of insects, birds and small mammals that aid in the growth and reproduction of plants worldwide.
"Pollination is the most unappreciated ecological interaction that we all depend on. It's something we've taken for granted that we can't afford to take for granted anymore," said May Berenbaum, coordinator of the University of Illinois' Bee Spotter program, which attempts to identify and collect photos of bee species throughout Illinois and St. Louis.
One-third of the food humans consume depends on pollinators like bees for reproduction, said Christy Childs, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Zoo.
One pollinator in particular has been getting a lot of attention lately. Honeybees are facing a battle against the odds, with more than 36 percent of their colonies lost last year alone, according to a nationwide survey of bee health released in May.
Biologists are at a loss to identify the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, the agent behind many of last year's hive failures. As its name suggests, colonies with the disorder often "collapse," or fail, because all of its adult bees simply disappear from the hive.
CCD can take a heavy financial toll on beekeepers, but in the long run, farmers could also feel the sting of the species' decline. One colony of honeybees can pollinate thousands of acres, said Robert Sears, president of the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers' Association. And farmland is often among this acreage. Crops such as strawberries, tomatoes, almonds and pumpkins use pollinators to reproduce.
"If CCD goes unchecked, our diet would consist more of rice and corn and less of fruits, vegetables and nuts," Sears said. "You could still raise fruits, vegetables and nuts, but not on the scale that makes it economical."
Today, honeybees partner with native bee populations to aid in $19 billion worth of U.S. crop production, Childs said.
"We rely on these bees," said St. Louis Zoo Curator of Invertebrates Ed Spevak. "We can't live without them."
Spevak and student volunteers with the Zoo are currently working to count and identify the many species of bees that frequent the prairie restoration areas in Forest Park.
In the course of their work, Sepvak's bee spotters will likely stumble across some of the 7.5 million new honeybees that Sears and the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers' Association introduced into the St. Louis area last year. Some of the 125 new hobbyist beekeepers recruited by the association keep as many as eight colonies of honeybees, while more experienced beekeepers like Spears often keep dozens.
But short of suiting up in beekeeper's attire, St. Louisans have a number of options for promoting pollinators. One simple solution is to give weeds like dandelions a little leeway in the front lawn.
"What we see as weeds is dinner for a pollinator," Berenbaum said. "A perfectly green, manicured lawn is a biological desert for pollinators."
Spevak suggests planting a garden with lots of flowering plants and snapping a few pictures of the bees that frequent it for the Bee Spotter Web site.
To find out about getting honeybees sent to your home, click here .
Amanda King is an intern at the Beacon.