Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Bees, butterflies and other tiny pollinators have a big job to do. Many plants, including fruits and vegetables, rely on the work of pollinators to reproduce.
But pollinators are in trouble. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with dozens of federal and university research organizations, continue to document “colony collapse” of honeybees and severe declines of insect populations. Threats to pollinators include habitat loss, disease, lack of plant diversity and pesticide exposure.
To help address the problem on a local scale, the Santa Fe County Commission passed a resolution in June to protect and enhance pollinator habitat.
“I know we’re under a budget crunch,” said Commissioner Anna Hansen, who introduced the resolution. “But if we’re an example at the county when it comes to protecting pollinators, then people may realize that they can do these things in their own yards.”
Included in the resolution is a directive to county staff to analyze how the county could identify existing pockets of pollinator habitat on public and private lands, prioritize native plants and pesticide-free management on county property, and pursue public-private partnerships to educate about pollinators and restore habitat.
Hansen, who hasn’t used pesticides in her yard for 30 years, said reviewing the county’s sustainable land management and growth management codes would be a good first step to implementing the resolution.
“I live in the middle of town, and to have these butterflies and hummingbirds in my front yard is a joy,” she said. “Pollinators and wildlife can bring that joy to our lives, but they need our voice.”
County efforts aren’t focused solely on improving habitat for honeybees and hummingbirds. Native bees play an equally important role in the ecosystem of northern New Mexico.
Bee scientist and Santa Fe resident Olivia Carril said that New Mexico, with its large swaths of undisturbed public land, is a “fascinating” place to study native bees. The Land of Enchantment is home to at least 1,000 different bee species, including the smallest bee in North America.
“I like collecting bees here because we have so many eco-regions that come together,” she said. “Some see deserts as wastelands, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is the place to be if you want to study bees and pollination.”
Carril is surveying native bees in Bandelier National Monument, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and on a northern New Mexico ranch. She also studied bees in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, and has written several field guides about native bees.
Solitary female bees in the Southwest are well-adapted to dry desert environments. They build nests in the ground.
“They are busy moms who have a lot to do,” Carril said. “Good pollinators are important because the vast majority of plants we see, especially in the desert southwest, besides being aesthetically pleasing, produce seeds that support birds, ants and other insects. All of those things at the base of the food chain rely on seeds.”
The resolution will help Santa Fe County Open Space staff expand efforts to improve pollinator habitat, said resource management specialist Peggy Darr.
“We’ve planted wildflowers like milkweed at several of our open spaces,” Darr said. “The idea is not to create an island of habitat, but to improve where pollinators can move from property to property.”
Many Santa Fe County properties lack lots of wildflowers, but have plenty of native grasses. Open Space staff sow wildflower seeds, remove invasive plants and work on reducing soil disturbance and erosion to create ideal habitat for insects and birds.
Monitoring bees and other pollinators could also help the county determine what land management strategies support healthy insect populations.
Kate Whealen, a member of the Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers who has tended beehives in Santa Fe and La Puebla, said the county should work with local pollinator experts and backyard beekeepers to implement the resolution. Whealen recently contacted the county about a pesticide poisoning of six beehives in Santa Fe.
“Bees are key to food production,” Whealen said. “We’re always going to need bees on some level. We’ve seen a lot of people get into gardening during this pandemic, and we need to encourage that, but also educate about the pesticides that can get into our water sources and our food.”
Conservation groups are eager to help Santa Fe County connect pollinator habitat on public and private property.
Kaitlin Haase, the Southwest pollinator conservation specialist in Santa Fe for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, said residents can learn how to make bees and other pollinators feel at home in their backyards and urban green spaces.
“Providing food for pollinators means having places where those insects can get nectar from flowers and bees can collect pollen,” Haase said. “Even if you just plant a little herb garden and let that flower, that’s great.”
Pollinators thrive on hardy plants and preventive pest management, Haase said, which means avoiding the use of harmful pesticides. Many native plants can attract predators of aphids and other pests that eliminate the need for pesticides.
The Santa Fe Public Library has a program for residents to “check out” seeds that have not been treated with pesticides.
“Climate change is threatening our plants and our soils in this very fragile environment of the Southwest,” Haase said. “Our environment is so interconnected. We can help even a little bit by giving space to pollinators. It’s about the big picture, not just one tiny bee.”