Invertebrates — animals without a backbone or bony skeleton that comprise 95% of animal species — are the workhorses behind a healthy ecosystem. They range from pollinators like bees and butterflies to mussels that clean our water, to land snails and slugs that decompose forest litter and recycle nutrients. In short, they are both nourishers and cleanup crew for our planet.
As Scott Hoffman Black, executive director at the Xerces Society explained in a recent phone interview, invertebrates and plants form the base of the food web that controls the planet.
“Invertebrates are really the fabric of the planet. I like to think that we have plants, and we have insects and together they clothe the planet. Insects are an important food source for birds and other animals. Everything from berries to watermelons are pollinated by insects, mostly bees. Dung beetles and other insects make sure that we aren’t up to our ears in poop. [Invertebrates] are part of our daily lives and we often don’t realize it or give them the credit they are due.”
The Xerces Society not only defends these warriors of the natural world, it celebrates them. Based in Portland, Oregon, and named after the now extinct Xerces Blue butterfly, the group’s mission is to protect “wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats.”
With more and more people becoming aware of the role of pollination in our food chain, Black noted that bees are “the stars” of the invertebrate world.
“About one in every three bites of food we eat comes from insect pollination. We’d have rice, wheat, and corn, but we wouldn’t have all the beautiful vegetables and fruits that we find at the farmers’ market. We have 3600 native bees in North America. They come in every shape and size. Most people are familiar with bumblebees, but they may be a metallic green or black or look like little wasps or flies. They’re out there every day pollinating our crops, but also the food that animals depend on.”
Xerces collaborates with scientists all over the world. It works with farmers, wildlife, land, and park managers, and individual citizens. Its projects range from pollinator preservation to aquatic conservation.
The organization works in multiple venues because just as invertebrates perform multiple tasks, from helping our soil to feeding our fish, they also face multiple threats to their health and existence. Black told me their major threats are threefold.
“Unfortunately, it’s death by a thousand cuts. There’s not one biggest threat. Habitat, pesticides, and climate change are the big three. We tend to build and grow our food in a way that doesn’t leave anything for the insects. Those areas are getting bigger. In cities, we tend to gravitate to green lawns, and roses that look perfect, but that have no value for insects.
So lack of habitat is a big threat, as is pesticide use. We use way too many poisons in the world, especially in the U.S. We use too much pesticide in agricultural areas, but often even more in urban areas in the quest for the perfect green lawn and perfect rose.”
And, he said, climate change is impacting the majority of invertebrates – especially bees and butterflies, while pests, which make up less than one percent of insects, are more adaptable. Therefore, healthy habitats are especially crucial for invertebrates as climate disruption forces them into unfamiliar and less hospitable territory. As Black explained,
“ From our point of view, climate change is happening, and it’s causing more severe weather. These small animals need to be able to move across the landscape. Xerces is about creating habitat patches, gardens, and miles-long strips to provide pesticide-free habitats, but also to allow insects to move across the landscape.”
The good news is that from park managers to home gardeners we all have a role to play when it comes to providing a healthy habitat for these small but powerful creatures. According to Black,
“The neat thing about insects is that anybody can provide habitat. Whether it’s you in your yard, the park manager, the farmer who wants more pollinators, or land managers. Everybody can be involved. People in urban areas have a really important role to play, from a habitat point of view to a pesticide point of view. We have gotten a whole range of cities to outlaw pesticide use. Portland, Spokane and Seattle are among the cities that have banned the use of neonicotinoids, in park areas, and we’re trying to get as many cities as possible to join them.”
Individual gardeners should not only avoid using pesticides, they also should put in native plants that will grow and bloom throughout the season. Black urges gardeners to take Xerces’ Bring Back the Pollinators Pledge, adding,
“Tell people why you are doing it. It’s a great way to start a conversation. Insure that kids can go out and see and learn about these animals. Help bring nature into the cities and neighborhoods where they live so it’s not so far away.”
And finally, after they’ve planted that native garden, Black encourages gardeners to
“Grab your favorite chair and drink and sit near your flowers. Relax and watch. People who do that tell me that they never expected to see 10 or 20 different kinds of animals.”