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Why pollinators matter and how Brandeis’ use of herbicides affects them

When most people think of pollination, they picture bees and flowers. They may be aware that pollination is necessary for the growth of plants, but what exactly is pollination and why is it so important? Technically speaking, it is the transfer of pollen from the male anther to the female stigma of a flower. For practical understanding, it is the method of reproduction for most plants, without which, plants would cease to exist. Therefore, pollination, and the manner in which the pollen travels from flower to flower, is a crucial part of each local ecosystem. Vectors influence the movement of pollen and can include environmental factors such as wind and water, but the main driver of pollination is the inadvertent work of animals such as bees, butterflies, bats, etc. These important workers are called pollinators and are just as important as pollination itself because without them, the process would never occur for most plants. Despite ecological and human reliance on pollinators, they are in rapid decline largely due to human activity. The amount of locations where bumblebees can be found in North America and Europe has fallen 46 and 17 percent, respectively. This is largely due to climate change and widespread pesticide use, including herbicides that are used by Brandeis. 

Pollinators play an important ecological role. In fact, pollinators are so important that they are classified as keystone species because they are fundamental in keeping the ecosystem healthy. Without them, we face a plethora of major problems including climate change and food supply shortages. At least 75 percent and up to 95 percent of plants require the help of pollinators to transfer their genetic material in order to reproduce. These plants contribute to a majority of the fruits and vegetables that we eat (a third of the foods we eat are subject to pollinators’ work), half of the raw materials and natural oils, the reduction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the inhibition of soil erosion. All of these functions affect human life. 

Unfortunately, these pollinators are constantly threatened by human activities that have resulted in the decline of pollinators’ populations. People have upset the ecosystems by replacing native vegetation with lawns, gardens and roads which have taken away the pollinators’ nesting and feeding habitats. In addition, climate change compounds the issue, affecting the pollinators’ relationship with the plants it is responsible for pollinating. Another way humans are hindering pollinators’ jobs is by using pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals used to deter pests such as rodents or insects and are an umbrella term for herbicides, insecticides and rodenticides. They are very effective and can be found nearly everywhere, but the overuse of pesticides is negatively affecting the population of pollinators.

The situation seems dire, and it is. At Brandeis, for example, you can find pollinators such as the European wool carder bee and gray hairstreak butterfly hard at work. But, like pollinators all over the world, they face the threat of pesticide use and the removal of native plants and habitats. Brandeis acknowledges the benefits of pollinators for the biodiversity of campus and the importance of them for the ecosystem; in fact, they have planted two pollinator meadows to attract the ecologically crucial animals (most recently over the past summer near the Rose Art Museum). However, these efforts are greatly undermined by Brandeis’ use of herbicides. This is why our branch of Herbicide Free Campus is determined to work diligently to support these pollinators by reducing herbicide and fertilizer use at Brandeis and promoting pollinator-friendly habitats on campus.

Currently, Brandeis uses a fertilizer/pesticide mix called Proscape Mesa, which contains many toxic chemicals that harm the environment and pollinators. For example, one ingredient—Dimethylamine salt of 2,4-D—has been proven to inhibit heart contractions in bees and negatively affect the development of bird eggs. Dithiopyr, another ingredient in Proscape Mesa, is also classified as toxic to bees. By replacing this herbicide with an organic herbicide, Brandeis would greatly improve the health and safety of our campus for students and pollinators alike. Additionally, by employing organic landcare principles to improve soil health, Brandeis could greatly reduce the need for fertilizers.

Another way to help pollinators is by planting pollinator-friendly vegetation. HFC wants Brandeis to replace their annual plants, which must be planted each season, with perennial and native plants, which regrow by themselves and do not require herbicides. A priority of HFC is planting host plants for pollinators to increase the biodiversity on campus. Examples of alternative plants include blue vervain, swamp milkweed and wild geranium. These plants would attract a slew of pollinators such as monarch butterflies and bumblebees. In addition, they are good candidates to plant easily because for the most part, they are shade tolerant, resistant to deer (which can be seen on campus often) and are pest free. If Brandeis would give up their use of the toxic herbicides and plant some of these alternatives, there would be the potential for a healthier ecosystem and student body. Besides, who wouldn’t want more butterflies on campus?

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