The dessert aisle, minus chocolate, frosting, cheesecake, and pretty much everything delicious. Phil Bond Photography/Whole Foods

A diminished Whole Foods aisle shows just how sad our world would look without bee and butterfly populations.

In a Whole Foods in Fremont, California, the dessert section is gutted. Shelves once filled with crème brulee, chocolate chip cookies, and squares of tiramisu are empty now, save for the occasional soy-based vegan “cheesecake” and coconut macaroon.

This is not the casualty of an overzealous kids’ birthday party, but the consequence of a large and pernicious trend: the decline of pollinators. Shrinking populations of bees, butterflies, and other species “is the most pressing biodiversity issue of our time,” says Eric Mader, the pollinator program co-director for The Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to insect conservation.

The impact of pollinators, Mader says, is much broader than people realize; the dessert aisle is just one tangible way to illustrate it. The demonstration in the Fremont grocery store is part of the Xerces Society and Whole Foods’ “Share the Buzz” campaign, designed to show what our food system looks like without pollinators and engage people with sustainable practices and conservation efforts.

For contrast, a fully-stocked sweets section. (Phil Bond Photography/Whole Foods)

The reality of pollinator decline, Mader says, is often mistakenly conflated with the status of one particular species: the honeybee. “There’s been no shortage of media around the decline of the honeybee in recent years,” he says. New pests and parasites, loss of habitat, and pesticide overuse, coupled with an aging population of beekeepers, have resulted in a 50 percent reduction in the population since the middle of the last century.

But despite these challenges, “the honeybee is relatively secure from a global conservation standpoint,” Mader says. In the U.S., the honeybee isn’t one of the most crucial pollinators from an economic standpoint, since it isn’t native to the country and it didn’t co-evolve with some of the nation’s highest-value food plants.

But native pollinators—which are more crucial to edible crops—are succumbing to the same environmental factors shrinking the more-publicized honeybee populations. “In North America, we have roughly 4,000 species of wild bees,” Mader says. “They play an incredibly important role in crop pollination, yet as a society we know nothing about them and place very little value on the species, despite the fact that they contribute billions of dollars a year to our national economy.”

At this point in time, one in four bumblebees is at risk of extinction. These bees, Mader says, are among our most economically significant native wild pollinators. They pollinate crops like blueberries and cherries early in the season, and increase the yield of certain tomato plants by up to 30 percent. “From a food security standpoint, their decline puts us in a really vulnerable position,” Mader says.

Take, for example, that dessert aisle. Native pollinators play a vital role in dairy production, fertilizing the clover seeds and alfalfa seeds that feed livestock. They are also involved in the production of oil stock like canola. “The absence of pollinators would not only take the most delicious things out of our diet, but also the most nutritionally significant parts as well,” Mader says.

A pollinator doing work. (Heinz-Peter Bader/
Reuters Pictures)

What’s especially troubling, Mader says, is a 300 percent increase, over past 50 years, in global cropland that depends on pollinator involvement. Around 85 percent of the plant species on earth require the assistance of animals to grow; that comes out to about one in every three bites of food taken.

The shrinking pollinator populations mirror a larger global loss: the London Zoological Society estimates that 50 percent of all wildlife on earth has disappeared over the past 40 years.

But in the case of disappearing bees and butterflies, this is not a difficult problem to solve. “Every single person can create a pollinator landscape in their own space,” Mader says. Through the Xerces Society, he’s been involved with developing pollinator habitats at airports; green building rooftops can provide a similar platform. “There are all kinds of ways you can engineer habitats into the built environment, as well as natural spaces,” Mader says.

Even if your only garden is a flowerpot on a tiny city balcony, there’s room to support these species. “Imagine if every person in an apartment building plants a sunflower on the balcony,” Mader says. “Suddenly that entire building is a field of sunflowers. What an interesting and elegant solution to this devastating issue.”

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