Non-Profit Spotlight: The Xerces Society
By Jessica Norris
Scott Hoffman Black knew the news was coming, but it was still hard to believe. When the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum that called for of a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators in June of 2014, it was the culmination of years of effort. The announcement was unprecedented: invertebrates were finally given prominence on the landscape of policy and conservation. It was a long-awaited moment for the Xerces Society, the conservation group Black leads in its efforts to protect wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. The Xerces Society had spent decades trying to convince people of the importance of insect pollinators.
“In the 1990s, pretty much everyone working on pollinator conservation could have sat around a single conference table,” says Black. “I got used to people going glassy-eyed when I mentioned invertebrate conservation.”
Things have changed a lot since then. Today, Black is regularly invited to deliver presentations to hundreds of interested people. The current U.S. Farm Bill provides cost-shares for creating pollinator habitat. Urban designers are integrating pollinator gardens into city parks and greenspace as a matter of course. Black is grateful for their progress, but he also knows that these advances in conservation and awareness are partly a response to crisis conditions. Many of the current initiatives originated about a decade ago, after a crash in honeybee populations.
Specialists had been noting cracks in the systems that deliver pollination services for years, warning regulators and even scientists that it was not safe or sensible to rely on the honeybee for most of our farming and other pollination needs.
“We knew that is was a problem to have our entire agricultural system built on a single, non-native, managed pollinator,” says Black. But the message didn’t resonate widely until Colony Collapse Disorder burst onto the scene in 2006, taking out up to 30% of the commercially managed hives. In its wake, law-makers who had been turning down meetings for years were calling the Xerces Society looking for information and ways to help the farmers, secondary industries, and individuals affected by the crash. Suddenly the base of the animal food chain had a seat at the table.
The intervening decade has witnessed remarkable growth in the scope and influence of the Xerces Society, as additional sectors of society came to understand the importance of pollinators and the threats they were facing. It should be noted that the Society itself has a broad conservation agenda, one that includes all invertebrate species, including snails, mussels, and many others that do not rely on pollen or nectar. Pollinators, however, have been a driving focus since the organization’s earliest days.
Founded by Robert Michael Pyle in 1971, the Xerces Society is named for a huge blue butterfly whose last representative disappeared from the San Francisco Peninsula in the 1940s. The Society concentrated on butterflies in the early years, eventually expanding its conservation efforts to all invertebrates. Today, the Xerces Society prioritizes the needs of all invertebrates, and addresses them through advocacy, education, and applied research. One strategy, the Pollinator Conservation program, focuses on habitat restoration, training programs for farmers, land managers, and gardeners, and creating publications that can be widely disseminated to support pollinators.
Agriculture provides an intuitive connection between pollinators and society via food production. Accordingly, the Xerces Society has focused on improving agricultural practices as one of a key programmatic activities. One of the program’s most important goals cannot be readily translated into scientific metrics. “What is needed is a paradigm shift. We need to stop thinking that there is a silver bullet,” says Black. For years, he says, too many agronomists have approached these issues as simply a technology race between crop scientists and natural challenges such as pests and disease. If one chemical stops working, we jump to the next. When that fails even faster, or worse yet, has unintended and negative consequences, we switch chemicals again. Or the silver bullet might be a “new” species of pollinator that seems to have all the answers.
Reliable pollinators are currently moved all around the globe for large-scale agriculture. Rather than think about the systematic problems and support native pollinators in response to Colony Collapse Syndrome, many agronomists simply looked for a new species from elsewhere. Bees are being moved at unprecedented rates. For example, a European bumblebee that was introduced to South America has all but driven some local species extinct. In place of this model, the Xerces Society would like to see an integrated approach to pollination as part of a larger, functional, multi-species system with an inherent ability to adjust to change and respond to emerging risks. Such change is hard-won, and unfortunately, often comes about only in response to sever disruptions to the status quo. Such disruptions, like failed crops and disease outbreaks, are a painful way to make progress.
In the meantime, the Xerces Society can measure steady progress in other avenues, even if they are not full-blown revolutions. The U.S. Farm Bill now offers cost-shares for putting pollinator habitat onto agricultural land. Over the last six year, the Xerces Society has used this funding to help create over 200,000 acres of new habitat for bees and butterflies on farms, and protect thousands of at-risk species.
Agriculture is a powerful impetus, but it is only one facet of the Pollinator Conservation program. “One neat thing about pollinator conservation is that anyone can take action to improve their habitat,” says Black. Pollinators are very adaptable, and backyard pollination gardens really to work. “The data show that if you provide pollinators with a suite of native plants that bloom throughout the season, think about where they can nest in the landscape, and protect them from pesticides, pollinators can flourish in very urban environments.” In fact, pollinators like early successional habitats that are periodically mowed or otherwise managed. Parks, yards, and corporate campuses receive regular maintenance anyway, so integrating pollinator support might actually be easier than it is in wilder places. The Xerces Society supports such localized efforts through training programs, policy actions, and providing synthesized guides and research.
From a purely quantitative point of view, pollinator habitat in urban environments is not as important to pollinator populations simply because of the difference in spatial scale and because only certain species can persist in densely developed areas. Nevertheless, from a societal point of view, habitats in urban areas are critically important because they engage a wide swath of people. Neighborhoods and community groups that have pollinator gardens embrace fundamental concepts such as the need to be careful with pesticides, and such grassroots groups can drive initiatives and influence decisions well beyond urban habitats.
As for ecological restoration, stormwater management, and species protections, shifts on the political landscape wrought by interested urban residents often drive projects and policies far beyond our cities. Accordingly, urban and backyard pollinator projects can fight well above their weight in terms of their overall effect on national pollinator populations.
After all, both societal changes and pollinator science drive progress such as the 2014 federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators. And Black is keenly aware that pollinators may be enjoying the best or only 15 minutes of fame they will see during his career. “Administrations change and attitudes change. So we’re really focused on getting as much done as we can in the next year or two.”
The Xerces Society is fully mobilized to capitalize on the momentum created by the President’s initiative. They want to see the 7,000,000 acres of new pollinator habitat called for by the strategy. And they also want to seize this opportunity to plant the seeds of the paradigm shift they envision. It’s not just a question of making the specific conservation advances, it is also a chance to make sure that pollinators are routinely considered by all the agencies that affect them: EPA, USDA, and state and local entities.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity to implement as much of the strategy laid out by the White House as possible,” says Black. “A strategy is just pieces of paper, and it’s only as good as the implementation.”