SCOTT SIMON, host:
There'd been lots of new stories about the sudden and mysterious disappearance of honeybees. The bees aren't the only endangered pollinators. This week, groups across the country have been organizing events to raise awareness about disappearing pollinators as part of the first annual National Pollinator Week.
It was Postal Service that's been issuing four new stamps in honor of pollinators. E.O. Wilson is the esteemed Pellegrino research professor in entomology at Harvard University, and he's one of the world's foremost entomologists. He's also credited with minting the term biodiversity. He joins us in our studios.
Professor, thanks so much for being with us.
Professor E.O. WILSON (Entomology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University): Thank you so much for having me along.
SIMON: We've heard about the honeybees, but there's lots we haven't heard so much about.
Prof. WILSON: You haven't heard about the great world of pollinators, which are right at the center of every ecosystem on the land. They sustain the plants that provide about one-third of our food, but also the entire ecosystem.
SIMON: Pollinators, we're talking - it should be said - about flies, butterflies.
Prof. WILSON: Bees, of course, and a great many other kinds of insects: flies, wasps, even the ants, birds, hummingbirds and sun birds and also bats, even at few places in the world, non-flying mammals like opossums in Australia. And we find that the flowering plants depend on them to transmit pollen from one flower to the next are specialized according to the pollinators that they use.
SIMON: And we should understand what this means. If a plant doesn't get visited by the pollinator, if pollination doesn't occur, there's no next generation of that plant.
Prof. WILSON: That's quite correct. That species is doomed.
SIMON: And what are we talking about? What plants?
Prof. WILSON: We're talking about a very large percentage of the plants of the world. Temperate grasslands, of course, in the great carnivorous forest of the north and the land surface of the earth is primarily covered by those flowering plants serviced by those pollinators that occur over much of the world.
SIMON: You must be familiar with the fact, Prof. Wilson, that a lot of people -I dare say perhaps even Harvard students - will look at a bee or a wasp and say, that's got nothing to do with my life. The world will be better without them.
Prof. WILSON: Even at Harvard, sir, we have a great educational deficit. We need to begin the process of education. It's a pleasant education actually to learn about how the world works and what all those flowers mean.
Prof. WILSON: I'd recommend to anyone who would like to see pollination in action. As the summer progresses, find yourself a so-called weed patch. And, incidentally, I really want to get rid of an American English terms weeds and bugs. We are talking about a magnificent array of flowering plants that just happened to grow away from our agricultural fields. And we were talking about beautifully designed, exclusively adapted little creatures - insects, not bugs - in a great array in the systems.
But anyway to continue, please, go out and take a look at the numerous types of flowering plants that you normally call weeds that are growing wild out there in the field along the roadside, and just look at what's pollinating them. There will still probably be some honeybees; they haven't all gone. But in addition, you will see the little sweat bees, they're called - an inelegant term for miniature versions of honeybees.
And they come in dazzling colors - metallic blue, metallic green - doing the work of continuance of life. Among them will be an interesting array of flies, little surfing flies and other kinds of flies and flies that look an awful lot like a miniature two-winged hummingbirds buzzing from one flower to the next. What are they doing? What are - pollinators. They're making their living.
SIMON: The U.S. Senate is considering the Pollinator Habitat Protection Act and there's some language that's been inserted into the farm bill to protect pollinators. Are you impressed by these proposals?
Prof. WILSON: Sure. I think that it's a relatively easy thing for farmers to do. I think the main thing is to sustain natural environments. We want to do that anyway. I think we also need to be even more cautious than we've been with pesticides. Sometimes pesticides that we use turn out to have long-term effects, if not on us personally then the organisms that include pollinators. It's - the way I see it - a win-win situation for agriculture as well as everybody else.
SIMON: Professor Wilson, thanks so much.
Prof. WILSON: Thank you.
SIMON: Entomologist E.O. Wilson.