Making your home a sanctuary for Utah's little miracle workers

Reakirt's blue butterfly in Utah's Wasatch National Forest in 2016. Utah's native pollinators are in trouble and need your help.

Reakirt's blue butterfly in Utah's Wasatch National Forest in 2016. Utah's native pollinators are in trouble and need your help. (Mike Godfrey, At Home in Wild Spaces)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Dependence on honey bees is hard to overstate, but with the spotlight falling so heavily on the plight of domesticated bees, we are in real danger of neglecting the state's — even the continent's — more important and sometimes less charismatic pollinators.

Except for domesticated bees, honey bees are not native to the Americas, according to the United States Geological Survey. Utah is home to more than 1,100 different species of native bees, which can often be more effective pollinators than honey bees.

But, most of them don't fit the typical bee stereotypes. They are mostly solitary creatures, meaning they don't live in hives but instead build nests in the ground, reeds, or holes left by wood-boring beetles. In addition to Utah's thousands of native bee species, other critical pollinators include butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, moths, flies and ants — all of which are in need of refuge.

Utah's native pollinators are pulling double duty, according to Jim Bowcutt, head of the Utah Department of Agriculture's pollinator habitat program. Not only are they pivotal in pollinating humanity's crops, he says, but they are the caretakers of Utah's iconic and treasured wild lands. Their services benefit every living thing, from humans to birds, livestock to fish as well as Utah's charismatic game species like mule deer, bison, elk and moose.

These native pollinators are the world's great unsung heroes — and they're in big trouble. By some estimates, 65% of insects are at risk of extinction within the next century. Some species, like the monarch butterfly, have experienced a 90% population decline since the 1990s, and many other pollinators face the same uncertain future.

So what can you do?

Loss of habitat from development is perhaps the greatest single threat to pollinators and wildlife, followed by climate change, pesticides, and disease. Creating pesticide-free habitat for pollinators is simultaneously one of the simplest and most important things anyone can do to save Utah's struggling, endangered, and undervalued native pollinators.

The Utah Department of Agriculture's pollinator habitat program offers five tips to transform a home garden or property into pollinator sanctuaries.

  • Provide diverse native flowering plants with bloom times in spring, summer and fall.
  • Designate undisturbed nesting areas like bare ground, old wood, and brush piles.
  • Minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides whenever possible (vinegar and soap are excellent nontoxic alternatives).
  • Grow other native plants that provide food for caterpillars.
  • Apply for free pollinator kits from the Utah Pollinator program.

While the application period for the pollinator program awards has concluded for the 2024 calendar year, Bowcutt said anyone can still pick up free native seed packets and informational booklets about Utah's native pollinators at any of the Department of Agriculture's conservation district offices. The department's pollinator habitat program is only funded through 2026, Bowcutt said.

"With all the interest we've seen across the state, we're hoping to keep the program going," he said.

Programs, pamphlets and seed packets are undoubtedly helping restore lost habitat for Utah's pollinators, but the habitat they need most of all is a place in humanity's minds and hearts. Recognizing our dependence on native pollinators will likely require a serious upgrade to our collective value system.

While pollinators include "cute" species like hummingbirds, butterflies and honey bees, most aren't likely to win or be voted runner-up in a beauty contest. People might even be afraid or harbor feelings of disgust toward many native pollinators like bats, wasps, flies, ants and beetles. But Bowcutt says it's important to consider them, too. These "creepy crawlies," he says, are the indispensable caretakers of the natural systems that support and feed us all.

The world's creepy crawlies are generationally undervalued miracle workers, thanklessly tending to and caring for all of us. While some have tried, it's likely impossible to put a dollar figure on the services pollinators provide.

Pollinators can be thanked for most of the beauty in nature, as well as what lands on a dinner plate. Finding ways to give them sanctuary is small compensation for all they do.

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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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