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Doug Leier: Decline in pollinator species stands to impact human food supplies

Doug Leier, North Dakota Game and Fish Department1 / 2
In the past year, there has been an increase in discussion about insects and pollinators and their role in the food chain and nature. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo)2 / 2

As a student of biology in high school and through college, and into my professional career as a biologist, I've always appreciated the complexities of nature, such as individual fish and wildlife species and their connection to the food, water, space, shelter or habitat they call home.

For good reason, much of the information the North Dakota Game and Fish Department provides on these wildlife and habitat connections relates to species that are hunted, fished and trapped. That's because hunters, anglers and trappers provide the bulk of the department's funding.

In the past year, however, you've likely heard more and more discussion about insects and pollinators and their role in the food chain and nature.

Insects are a crucial food source for some wildlife species. We learned that all too well this summer, when a severe drought apparently reduced the summer insect crop that is so vital to newly hatched pheasants, grouse and partridge. Biologists believed that was a significant factor in a much-reduced upland game bird reproduction effort in 2017.

Many insects also pollinate the food that humans eat. Unfortunately, recent indications are that some populations of pollinators such as bumble bees may be declining. Several insect species recently have been listed, or are petitioned to be listed, under the Endangered Species Act. Perhaps most notable is the monarch butterfly. Scientists are still trying to understand the cause of their decline and if they are indeed at risk of extinction.

What is a pollinator?

A pollinator is any animal that moves pollen from one part of a flower to another plant. Pollen fertilizes the plant, and only fertilized plants make seeds or fruit. Without pollination, plants cannot reproduce and our food supply and habitat would be reduced.

In North Dakota, the principal pollinators are insects such as native bees, butterflies and some moths. North Dakota has about 150 species of butterflies, more than 1,400 moths, and an unknown number of bee species (probably hundreds). Bats and birds, while important pollinators in other states, are not considered significant pollinators in North Dakota.

Honey bees, although not native to North America, are vital agricultural pollinators and will benefit from pollinator conservation in North Dakota.

Monarch butterflies are perhaps the most easily recognized butterfly. However, the population has declined from an estimated high of almost 1 billion monarchs in 1996 to a low of 35 million in 2013. It is estimated that at least 225 million monarchs are needed to sustain the population for the long term. In 2014, the monarch was petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

There are many ways citizens can help or learn more about monarchs and other pollinators in North Dakota. The Game and Fish Department website at has a wealth of information on the importance of these fragile natural relationships, and how monitoring populations and implementing possible conservation programs can benefit individual species that in turn improve the health of the entire ecosystem — for wildlife and for humans.