Pollinators as Social and Ecological Capital in the Pollinator Capitol of America

When most people think of the “birds and the bees,” they are inevitably thinking about relationships… romantic or otherwise. But what few conservationist advocates remember is that their neighbors, friends and kin who may be unschooled in the details of conservation biology almost intuitively “get” that the conservation of relationships may be as necessary as the conservation of species or of habitats. Most people will agree that the relationships between pollen-carrying animals and plants are worthy of our respect, protection and restoration, since they literally bring us our daily breads, fruits and vegetables.

So what if you designed a participatory community-based conservation and restoration initiative around pollinators, their habitats, and their benefits to a local economy? It may seem far-fetched, but that is exactly what is happening in the watersheds straddling the Arizona-Sonora border, which is some of the richest real estate for native pollinators in all of the Americas.

Heliconius Sara, just one of the butterfly species in Arizona.

The borderlands of Southeastern Arizona and adjacent Sonora are home to at least 600 native bee species which live in the wilds of southern Arizona, as well as 300 pollinating butterflies and moths, 15 hummingbird species, two bats and several doves. That level of pollinator diversity may qualify this landscape to be heralded as the “pollinator capitol of North America.”  Ironically this semi-arid landscape is also one of the worst hit by the arrival of Africanized bees and parasitic mites which have wrecked havoc upon the honeybee economy. Throw in the effects of the sudden colony collapse, and there may be fewer honeybees out pollinating flowers in this region that at any time since the American Revolution.

And yet, another kind of revolution is now occurring in the borderlands landscape; a deep-seated urge to restore broken relationships—between the citizens of Mexico and those of the U.S., between ranchers and urban environmentalists, between native and immigrants, and of course between humankind and other-than-human species. Restoring plant-pollinator relationships has become a tangible means of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, ideologies and livelihoods to heal relationships at several levels all at once.

Coming together under the umbrella of the Borderlands Habitat Restoration Initiative,  local citizens—from retired elders to the Girl Scouts—are banding together to restore degraded lands and waters, improve wildlife habitat for pollinators,and strengthen the local economy through celebrating what is most unique about this place.

As BCRI founder and co-facilitator Ron Pulliam reminds us, “The borderland between southern Arizona and northern Sonora is one of the most biologically diverse temperate areas in the world. Its unusually high biological diversity for any ecoregion on the continent is due to the confluence of four great biogeographic domains- the Sonoran desert to the West, the Chihuahuan desert to the East, the Sierra Madre to the South and the Rocky Mountains to the North- and the intermingling of their unique floras and faunas.”

While much of the borderlands working landscapes appear to be intact, and its flora and fauna attract millions of visitors each year, all that has been changing rapidly. In just the past 50 years, human settlements have grown from a few dusty border towns to several sprawling, rapidly growing cities. The large human migration in history has been the post-World War II translocation of Mexicans and Americans to the Sunbelt. Streams, rivers and reservoirs have been gobbled up, and long meandering corridors of habitats fragmented like the breaking-up of a necklace of pearls. And yet—for a brief moment in time—the economic downturn has slowed the momentum of land clearing and habitat fragmentation—and turned people’s attention to the possibility of a “restoration economy.”

Patagonia, Az. - Photo taken by Tim Tracy

What if Patagonia, Arizona—already one of the most popular birding spots in the West—actually proclaimed itself to be the Pollinator Capital of America, and shifted its goals to model what a restoration economy can be? What if its farmers, gardeners and orchard-keepers bolstered their fruit, nut and berry yields by planting hedgerows of pollinator-attracting shrubs and wildflowers around the edges of their crops? What if naturalists and birders were invited to come to the town’s “bird and breakfast” lodges, motels and camp grounds to document the migrations of hummingbirds, bats and butterflies in spring and fall, leaving their “citizen science” data behind to be analyzed by school children and elderly volunteers? What if new nurseries popped up that sold so many pollinator-attracting trees, shrubs and wildflowers that the entire town became prime pollinator habitat once more? Many Patagonians are already set on seeing their community integrate many of the best practices for habitat restoration and pollinator recovery so that birds, bees, butterflies, bats and people all benefit.

Already the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Girl Scouts have planted pollinator gardens in public places, including the town square. Mexican biology students have visited and exchanged ideas with American students. A coalition of farmers and orchard keepers have recently banded together to submit an on-farm pollinator habitat project to the USDA, and hundreds of townspeople participated in 2011 events such as a nectar plant propagation workshop, hummingbird banding and monitoring expeditions and “potting parties” for seedlings of hummingbird bushes. A speaker’s series and habitat restoration forum are planned for 2012.

We hope you will visit our community and participate in our restoration projects. You will also be able to make a real contribution to wildlife and to reconnecting people with land and wildlife while healing cultural relationships in the borderlands as well..

And of the idea of “land health”: seems to abstract to you, consider this: The pollination services provided to food crops and rangeland forages by bees and other animals is valued at no less than $15-20 billion a year in the United States. It, like many other things we now find to be scarce, was once provided to us “for free.” But over the last five years, the costs for Western orchardists renting honeybee colonies has tripled, so that the price of renting and managing honeybees to pollinate a crop like almond trees is now 15% of the entire annual cost of producing nuts. This has forced farmers, orchard-keepers and ranchers to look for other pollinators to do the “work” on their lands. Recent events suggest that if borderland dwellers want to keep these valuable services available to us, our many cultures in the region need to  invest in restoring imperiled relationships by providing pollinators with food, sheltered nesting areas and pesticide-free habitat

 

Gary Paul Nabhan was co-author of The Forgotten Pollinators (with Stephen Buchmann) and founder of the national campaign of the same name. He is editor of the anthology,  Conserving Migratory Pollinators and Nectar Corridors in North America, and author of the memoir of a literary naturalist, Cross Pollinations. He was recently honored by Utne Reader as one of 25 visionaries changing the world for the better in 2011.

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