We have heard a lot in recent years about the plight of honey bees and how agriculture has done its part to contribute to declining populations of the bee family (Anthophila).
We have learned it is not just agricultural practices that have led to the serious decline in these beneficial pollinators; a host of other factors—things like disease and the decline in native plants that normally help the species survive and thrive in a healthy environment—have contributed as well .
Regardless of the cause of the overall decline, farmers, biologists and conservationists alike recognize the necessity of keeping honey bees healthy. Otherwise, the balance of our delicate eco-system is at risk. Since honey bees alone play such a critical role in pollination of various plants and crops, their decline across the globe poses a growing risk to global food production.
Agriculture must face the role it plays in the survival of honey bees, but the latest research indicates their health and ultimate survival as a species goes beyond a one-direction solution. Biologists are discovering that to address the needs of pollinators, every aspect of their health and survival must be examined.
Thanks to the work of an Arizona ethnobiologist and agroecologist, we are learning that not only honey bees, but all types of pollinators may be facing a similar crisis, and the far-ranging solution will require a broad spectrum of conservation support.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
Gary Nabhan, a University of Arizona conservation biologist and the author of dozens of books on food, farming and biology, works with pollinators, including native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even nectar-feeding bats along the Arizona-Mexico international border. His efforts represent ground-breaking research that not only promises to benefit at-risk bees, birds and other pollinator animals, but also offers insight into how pollinator conservation can positively affect the region's economically-challenged human population.
It's an out-of-the-box cross-cooperation concept that brings together farmers, landowners, conservationists, area residents, government officials and local high school students who have met in the middle of an arid desert region to find common solutions to a multitude of social, environmental and biological problems that mirror life in broader areas of the world, beyond state and international borders.
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Nabhan is in a unique position and location to tackle such a complex project. With resources afforded by the university and complimented by The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, Southern Arizona plays host to one of the most diverse populations of pollinators on the continent. Hundreds of pollinator species have made their home in the northwestern corner of the Madrean Archipelago, a region full of mountains and floodplains, a location noted for the highest diversity of native bees, birds and mammals anywhere in the lower 48 states.
The area is also home to nearly 50,000 residents, many of whom are economically challenged to make a living in an area that can be harsh and unforgiving. As a result, gainful employment is tough to come by and lifestyles are often simple and limited as a result.
Nabhan, recognizing that these many factors provide a rare opportunity for his research, created Borderlands Restoration, a recognized low-profit, limited liability company designed to tackle not only the problems of pollinators, but also the socio-economic concerns of the local human population.
His plan was multi-faceted. The company laid plans to assess and improve the natural pollinator habitat of the region by identifying the decline of native plant species that pollinators rely upon for survival, many of which had all but disappeared for various reasons, including the rise of commercial agriculture on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
By rebuilding these missing elements in the local ecology, pollinators once again began to show signs of improvement. From volunteers to paid high school interns, existing and new nurseries were soon being established to promote the growth of native plants that pollinators prefer. These plants were then re-established on private and public land all across the region, especially in those areas where dense populations of pollinators were found, specifically along waterways and in the flood plains of low-lying areas.
Through his company, Nabhan also started working on erosion control and rainwater collection areas which increased soil moisture and stabilization, another component in helping to restore the ecology and natural habitat of pollinators in the region.
Ronald Pulliam, former science adviser for the U.S. Department of Interior and a Borderlands founder, says the efforts have created a restoration economy for the people of the area and at the same time is helping to rebuild pollinator populations.
The far-reaching advantages are many, including a supply of native perennials that can be planted surrounding the large number of new acres of alfalfa and cotton grown on both sides of the border. Such practices can help offset the loss of native plants and resolve, or at least slow, the loss of pollinators subject to chemical exposure resulting from these agricultural operations.
From an economic standpoint, the project has already proven to be a major contributor to local families. The second-largest employer in remote Patagonia, Arizona, the company also utilizes seasonal workers and a robust number of volunteers who have taken an interest in conservation and the benefits it is providing local families. Supported by university educators, many local students have made commitments to continue their education through university and college programs, especially in fields related to conservation, ecology and biology.
The highlights and details of the work of Borderlands Restoration and innovator Gary Nabhan are currently highlighted in the November issue of the Scientific American, in a well-crafted article by writer Alexis Marie Adams. Traveling with Nabhan as he prosecuted his work across the region, Adams chronicled how the cooperation and dedication of a handful of men and women are helping to change the future of pollinators of the region, while giving hope for a better life to the people who are working to find solutions to major ecological challenges in Southern Arizona.