Bees Are in Danger as a Result of Invasive Plants, Pesticides and Lack of Legislative Support
More homeowners have ditched mowing and manicuring their yards in hopes of protecting pollinators, but the voluntary action of citizens alone cannot prevent the endangerment of bees.
The proliferation of invasive plants, widespread application of chemicals and lack of legal cooperation have all exacerbated the dangers threatening bee colonies. Experts agree that dwindling bee populations can only swerve complete disappearance with stricter pesticide regulations and more extensive restoration of native habitats. But until sweeping legislation eradicates such threats, individuals hope to help local pollinators with local policies.
“The planet would be fine without us, but we would not be fine without insects,” said Renée Scott, the Somerville-based pollinator network coordinator of Massachusetts’s chapter of the Northeast Organic Farm Association. “Pollinators are genuinely the foundation of the food web that feeds us.”
Bees’ ability to pollinate flowering plants is integral to an ecosystem’s stability and human’s crop production, but without proper care, they cannot perform their necessary duty. Non-native plants, such as multiflora rose or knotweed, take up land where native plants would grow.
“Birds and insects have evolved through the centuries to coexist, so you need certain native plants that they have evolved with for them to feed and grow,” explained Concord Pollinator Health Advisory member Isabel Bailey. Violets, for example, are native to eastern North America and serve as “host plants for many different insects” and some of the “first early bloomers” in the Northeast, Bailey explained.
The timing of indigenous plants’ bloom is critical to the growth of local pollinator
populations. Nectar from flowering species feeds native queen bees as they work to “form new colonies in April, May and June,” said Anne Averill, a professor in the Department of
Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
While invasive plants, like buckthorn and burning bush, contain pollen, they often fail to
provide proper nutrients for local pollinators, Bailey said.
Therefore, it’s crucial that native bees have access to an abundance of local plants to maintain their population. Averill notes that greater biodiversity of native species bolsters stronger ecological stability since “each one of these species has their role in the functioning habitat.”
As climate activists raise awareness on the plight of native pollinators, some homeowners hope to personally nurture a healthier environment for bees by altering their previous lawn maintenance practices.
One specific initiative is No Mow May, a movement to halt lawn mowing for the month of May when most plants are in bloom. This idea originated in the United Kingdom in 2019 by Plantlife, a conservation charity.
No Mow May migrated to the United States in 2020 when 430 residents of Appleton, Wisconsin, urged their city council to drop its ordinance limiting grass and weeds in yards to 8 inches until June 1. During spare time at home during the pandemic, more Americans looked to get involved with saving pollinators and skipped their weekly lawn mowing routine. As of 2023, over 70 towns across the United States participate in No Mow May.
“I think everyone can do it in their own yard,” Bailey said. It’s a simple practice — pulling invasive species out, putting native ones in — that allows every citizen to personally revitalize local ecosystems.
Spencer Hardy, a pollinator biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in Hartford, Vermont, said at-home measures are a “gateway for people to get interested in conservation and wildlife ecology.”
While limiting harmful yard beautification is well intended, Averill noted this practice requires knowledgeable preparation.
“You can’t just let the grass grow without any inputs,” Averill said. Letting lawns grow untamed may, contrarily, hinder pollination. After four weeks of no mowing, Averill noted that 6-to-8-inch grass often overshadows smaller flowering plants that the bees need for pollination.
One solution, Averill said, is investing in native flowering bushes and trees, like azaleas, rhododendron, raspberry and blueberry bushes, which produce plentiful flowers during bloom.
In Lexington, residents hoping to foster native plants in their yards often turn to Lexington Living Landscapes. This program provides homeowners with lists of recommended plants and practices to maintain a pollinator-friendly lawn.
But the fight for healthy bee habitats cannot stop there. Bee colony collapse and habitat loss is occurring at a dramatically rapid rate, Scott said, “and once these species are gone, they’re gone.” Alleviating the dire condition of pollinators will rely on initiatives that address structural issues of outdoor management.
Across the country, the most pressing threat to bees is the unregulated use of neonicotinoids, experts agree.
Used to kill pests, neonicotinoids are systemic insecticides utilized for agriculture and urban landscaping. They are sprayed onto seeds and later absorbed by plants, building up in their system over their lifetime.
Chemicals from neonicotinoids are found in plant tissue, pollen and nectar, making infected plants toxic to bees. According to a study from the American Chemical Society, neonicotinoids inhibit bees’ navigation abilities, immune systems and overall longevity.
“One of the biggest problems we’ve had in the recent past is that neonicotinoids were widely ready and widely used and available to homeowners who were not licensed or not knowledgeable how they were harmful to bees,” Averill explained.
In February of 2021, the Massachusetts Pesticide Board Subcommittee proposed a bill restricting neonicotinoids from retail stores. After nearly six years of grassroots efforts, the Massachusetts state legislature passed the bill, and the ban came into effect July 1, 2022.
Now, neonicotinoids are only available to licensed pesticide professionals. Those certified to use neonicotinoids are aware of proper application and disposal practices that mitigate environmental impact.
While this is progress toward a safer environment for pollinators, the continued use of neonicotinoids for agricultural and landscaping purposes is still widely unregulated. Hardy warns that even nursery plants labeled as pollinator-friendly can still be contaminated with neonicotinoids.
Seven states have similar regulations to Massachusetts, but to garner large-scale reform, federal bans would place more stringent policies on neonicotinoids and bolster widespread bee protection. However, in Washington, D.C., pesticide lobbyists stand in the way of policy change at the national level, making every motion for federal initiatives fall through, Scott said.
Despite having no success on Capitol Hill, small-scale pesticide regulations, education programs and the nurturing of native plants is still imperative to the longevity of pollinators. Implementing local policies in conjunction with personal voluntary actions can protect bees, on industrial farms and in backyards.
“The end goal is the same,” Scott said. “Whether you’re urban or rural, the end goal is to preserve and create more habitat and regulate pesticides.”