By David Gutierrez
In the age of glyphosate and neonicotinoids, it can feel like there’s nothing a single person can do to stem the alarming worldwide decline of pollinator populations. Yet, even as grassroots activists and policy makers battle over the larger issues killing pollinators worldwide, ordinary people can take simple actions to boost pollinator numbers in their backyards.
One such action is at the heart of a nonprofit called the Great Seed Bomb, which organizes bike rides in which participants seed their surroundings with pollinator-friendly plants. The bike rides also raise money for local conservation groups.
“The Great Seed Bomb is about environmental awareness,” founder Jill Jordan says. “We’re empowering nonprofits that don’t have a lot of money, and we’re giving people something tangible to do. And we’re helping to grow flowers and plants for thousands of monarchs and bees.”
Pollinators in Crisis
For many years now, scientists have been sounding the alarm about crashing honeybee numbers, and the threat this poses to the modern agricultural system. In the United States alone, honeybees are responsible for pollinating an estimated $15 billion worth of food crops. Certain crops, such as apples, almonds and many berries, are nearly impossible to grow without honeybees.
Yet the emphasis on honeybees has in some ways distracted attention from the even more dire situation of wild pollinator populations – which are falling even faster than honeybee numbers, placing some of these species at risk of extinction. In fact, according to a study published in Science in 2013, most food crops actually produce higher yields when pollinated by wild insects, rather than honeybees.
Wild pollinators include bees, butterflies, moths, birds and even bats.
The exact cause of pollinator declines remains unclear, but the finger is increasingly being pointed at systemic poisons such as the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), sprayed in enormous quantities on fields of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Another major culprit is likely the pesticide class known as neonicotinoids.
But it’s clear that if we sit around and wait for politicians and big agriculture to stop using toxic chemicals, all the pollinators will be long gone. So in the meantime, Jordan, an environmental advocate and social entrepreneur, came up with an idea for how to enrich pollinator habitats in a fun, easy way.
Easy and effective
The Great Seed Bomb is modeled on conventional 5K and 10K charity bike rides. Participants purchase tickets for the event, with proceeds going to local environmental nonprofits. At the event, each rider is given a seed ball made from clay, organic compost and a mix of native, bee-friendly wildflowers and non-GMO milkweed. Participants hurl the seed balls as they ride, thereby spreading the native flowers across the landscape.
“This is an ancient agricultural method,” Jordan said. “If you just chuck seeds out there, they’ll get eaten or washed away. This method gives the seed ample time to survive.”
Jordan noted that the milkweed seeds are particularly important, as they are an essential food for monarch butterfly caterpillars.
“A whopping 90% of the monarch butterfly population is gone,” the organization says. “This is mainly due to the use of glyphosate (Roundup) – a pesticide destroying much of the monarch habitat, which consists of milkweed and wildflowers. Most unsettling is the fact that when there is no milkweed, there will be no monarch – it’s where they lay their eggs and monarch larvae feed almost exclusively on milkweed.”
According to the group, their bike rides also raise awareness about the importance of bike-friendly communities and economies, health and wellness, quality of life and buying local.
Best of all, there’s evidence that the seed bombing is likely to have real benefits. A study published in Molecular Ecology in March 2015, found that when farmers plant strips of flowers along the edge of their fields, the population of wild pollinators increases.
The 2013 Science study found that such practices actually boost crop yields – in contrast to neonicotinoid pesticides, which have never been shown to do so.
But until agriculture catches up with science, we can all throw seed bombs.