Bees, bats, birds and butterflies do us an important service: As they visit flowers to feed on nectar, they carry pollen from plant to plant. This movement of pollen from a flower’s male stamen to its female stigma — or that of the next flower — fertilizes plants and produces fruits and seeds.
Most of the world's flowering plants and crops depend on the hard-working insects and birds we call pollinators.
Without pollinators, we would miss out on many fruits, vegetables and nuts — not to mention chocolate and coffee.
But pollinators are in trouble.
Threats to Pollinators
For the past 25 years, many species of bees and other pollinators have experienced large drops in numbers. Among the causes:
- Fewer places to feed and breed. Pollinator habitat is shrinking. As roads and developments have replaced meadows and wildlands, pollinators have lost feeding and nesting sites. Remaining patches of prairie and meadow have become more disconnected. That makes it harder for pollinators to reach new breeding sites or find better habitat.
- Imported species and diseases. Invasive plants crowd out native ones, reducing food and shelter for pollinators. Disease-causing organisms— including viruses, fungi and bacteria — can spread from non-native to native pollinators. Other stressors, such as poor nutrition and pesticide exposure, may intensify the effect of diseases.
- Pesticides. While pesticides can help control crop pests and invasive species, improper use can harm pollinators and other wildlife. Use pesticides only when necessary. Use the minimum amount required and target the application so that only the intended pest is affected.
- Climate change. Flowers are blooming earlier as temperatures warm, costing some pollinators the opportunity to feed. Some insects feed only on specific plants; if these blooms die before insects arrive, the insects go hungry and fewer plants get pollinated.
Rising temperatures may be contributing to a decline in bumblebees. Numbers of North American bumblebees have fallen nearly 50 percent since 1974. The biggest losses have occurred in places where temperatures have risen the highest.
Other climate change effects — more flooding, shorter fire cycles and the spread of invasive species — threaten native habitats. This may directly affect pollinators if the host plant that a pollinator needs to survive is overtaken by another plant species.
For more information on threats to pollinators, see Status of Pollinators in North America, a 2007 report from the National Academy of Science.
Plight of the Monarch
The monarch butterfly, probably the world’s best-known butterfly, has become the symbol for a whole class of imperiled pollinators.
A monarch butterfly can travel up to 3,000 miles during fall migration. But the spectacular fall flight of millions of monarchs is threatened by loss of habitat in overwintering areas and throughout breeding and migration areas.
In recent decades, numbers of North American monarchs have plummeted. Both the eastern population (which overwinters in Mexico) and the western population (which overwinters in California) are down. Status reports are based on annual counts at overwintering sites.
From 1996 to 2020, the eastern monarch population dropped 88 percent, from an estimated 383 million to just under 45 million.
Since the 1980s, the western overwintering population has dropped more than 99 percent, from 4.5 million to 1,914 monarchs.
On December 15, 2020, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a 12-month finding on a petition to list the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. After a thorough review of the monarch’s status, the Service determined that listing is “warranted, but precluded” at this time because of higher-priority listing actions.
The Service is working with federal and state agencies, tribes and non-government groups to conserve monarchs. These efforts involve engaging the public in creating and restoring habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.
Threatened and Endangered Pollinators
Some 70 pollinator species are so imperiled that they qualify as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. See the list.
How the Fish and Wildlife Service Helps Pollinators
The Fish and Wildlife Service leads many efforts to stabilize and improve pollinator status. For example:
- Works with states and partners to conserve and restore habitat for pollinators, including milkweed for monarch butterflies. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provides technical and financial assistance to landowners interested in restoring wildlife habitat on their land. Since 1987, some 50,000 landowners have worked with Partners staff to complete 60,000 habitat restoration projects on 6 million acres.
- Works to recover threatened and endangered species, including imperiled pollinators. For example, the Service and partners reintroduced the threatened Oregon silverspot butterfly to Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge in 2017. The action helped the butterfly make a comeback on the Oregon coast.
- Creates pollinator garden demonstration sites at wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries and community sites near refuges. For example, the Service's South Texas Refuge Complex (which includes Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande and Laguna Atascosa Refuges) worked with 45 area schools, serving at least 33,000 students, to create schoolyard habitats featuring native pollinator-friendly plants.
- Creates and maintains butterfly trails and gardens at dozens of wildlife refuges. One butterfly garden is at Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first national wildlife refuge, established in 1903,
- Collaborates with partners on the National Seed Strategy to make native seeds more available for restoration. From 2015 to 2020, the group oversaw more than 8,800 native seed collections. The Service is also a member of the Plant Conservation Alliance.
- Supports national wildlife refuges in creating monarch waystations and participating in the Monarch Butterfly Sister Protected Area Program, a partnership of wildlife refuges and national parks in the United States and Canada, and natural protected areas in Mexico. The partnership was created by the Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management.
- Works with Mexico and Canada to research, conserve and restore pollinators, such as bats.
- Collaborates with the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, a consortium of government agencies, non-government organizations, educational institutions and businesses dedicated to pollinator conservation and education. The Service provides technical assistance in developing educational materials.
- Supports the efforts of wildlife refuges to conserve and restore native grasslands and prairies, which provide habitat for pollinators. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa is a leader in the restoration of tallgrass prairie and sedge meadow in the Midwest.
How You Can Help
Here are some simple things you can do to help pollinators.
1) Plant a Pollinator Garden
To attract a variety of pollinators, include a selection of plants native to your region. Native milkweed is vital for monarch butterflies to grow, develop and reproduce. Check field guides to find out which plants local caterpillars eat. Find pollinator-friendly plants for your area. Contact your local or state native plant society for help. Your local agricultural extension service is also a good resource.
Other resources for native plants include the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, with lists of native plant suppliers and a resident horticulturalist to answer questions.
2) Provide Pollinator Nesting Habitat
Pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds need places to nest as well as plants to feed on. Creating these places is surprisingly easy. Overlook some bare patches at the edge of your lawn. Many native bees are ground nesters. They need well-drained bare soil to create burrows.
Other native bees are cavity nesters; they make their homes in dead wood or brush. Leave plant stems, fallen logs or stumps for bees, beetles and flies to use for nesting. Allow some twigs and leaf litter to remain where they fall to provide overwinter shelter for many insect pollinators.
More help on creating pollinator-nesting habitat.
3) Avoid or Limit Pesticide Use
Make pesticides your option of last resort in battling weeds and crop and garden pests. Try these steps first.
- Take no action and accept some pest damage.
- Use physical controls. Hand-remove or trim pest-infested plants, or remove weeds and insect pests with garden gloves.
- Use mechanical controls such as machine tilling, aerating, cutting or digging.
- Cultivate healthy growing habits. Use clean weed-free and insect-free mulch. Create beneficial insect habitat. Rotate garden crops from year to year. Water the garden as needed, not on a schedule. Choose plants that have not been treated with pesticides.
- Grow organically to encourage native pest predators such as lacewings and lady beetles.
Monarch Joint Venture
Save the Monarch
Story: “Wings of Life”
How to create a monarch waystation
How to build a pollinator garden
How to restore overwintering habitat
Introduction to pollinators for use by nature centers, scouts, 4-H groups and others. ”The Birds and the Bees and . . .The Beetles. Why Care about Pollinators”
(PowerPoint 4 MB)
“What is the Buzz with Pollinators?” Facebook Live presentation from John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Pennsylvania
Reducing Risks to Pollinators from Insect and Plant Pest Control/Yards and Gardens (pdf)
Reducing Risks to Pollinators from Insect and Plant Pest Control/Farmlands
Pollinator-Friendly Practices (pdf)
Solving Your Pest Problems Without Harming Pollinators (pdf)
Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden (pdf)
Other Federal Pollinator Sites
National Park Service
U.S. Forest Service
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Department of Agriculture