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Experts say Colorado pollinators declining due to climate change

Experts say Colorado pollinators declining due to climate change
Experts say Colorado pollinators declining due to climate change 03:56

Humming and buzzing fill the air as Colorado's native pollinators come out for spring. Their pollination is the foundation of Colorado's ecosystem and the magic behind the state's beautiful wildflowers.

But each year, researchers are seeing less of certain pollinators.

"We used to have many more hummingbirds here. I've been feeding hummingbirds here for 21 years now," said Arvind Panjabi, senior research scientist at the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.


Panjabi still hasn't spotted a hummingbird in his Fort Collins yard. It's the latest he's ever waited for one.

"Sadly, this hummingbird feeder has not been used yet this spring. We're still waiting for the first hummingbird. So, I don't know if that's a sign of things to come here," said Panjabi.

Panjabi manages a database tracking North American bird populations, including trends, threats and distribution. He's seen big changes in the state's hummingbird species.

"The broad-tailed hummingbird has unfortunately been going through decline," Panjabi said. "It's lost nearly 50% of its population since 1970. On the other hand, the black-chinned hummingbird has been increasing over the last 50 years and moving north."

The black-chinned birds do well in desert environments, while broad-tailed hummingbirds are suited to cooler climates and higher elevations. They've seen a 30% population decline in the last decade alone.

According to a 2019 Audubon Society report, broad-tailed hummingbirds are one of the birds most vulnerable to climate change in Colorado, with a projected 69% range loss if temperatures warm by three degrees Celsius.

"Could we see broad-tails becoming extinct in Colorado at some point?" asked CBS Colorado's Olivia Young.

"That's really hard to say," Panjabi answered. "One thing we could see is their disappearance from the lower elevations. If things get hotter and drier down here, they'll be forced to move up."

It's a problem another Colorado pollinator is facing with even greater urgency.

"Because bumblebees are adapted to those cool, high-elevation environments, as the climate warms, there's only so much more up you can go," said Dr. John Mola, CSU professor and bee researcher  .


Mola took part in a study on the health of native pollinating insects, commissioned by state lawmakers in 2022, which found that one in five Colorado bumblebee species are at risk.

"In the next 50 years or so, we could see substantial declines in these species," Mola.

The researchers are now petitioning for those bees to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. Right now, only two bumblebee species nationwide make that list. Mola says the western bumblebee, in particular, should be included, as it could be near extinction before the end of the century.

But it's not just climate change threatening the pollinators. Non-native species, pathogens, loss of habitat and pesticides might be contributing to declines in population for both the birds and the bees.

It begs the question: What would a Colorado without these pollinators look like?

Experts say the ecosystem could be disrupted.

"Hummingbirds play an important role in the food chain. They both eat insects in addition to drinking nectar and are food for other birds and other carnivores," Panjabi said.

Colorado's agriculture and tourism industries could also take a hit.

"The prices of crops that rely on bumblebee population going up in price or even becoming scarce or lower in their nutritional quality," Mola said.

It's why researchers want to take steps now to protect the pollinators who put the color in Colorado.

"If you love wildflower displays in Colorado, then you really love that bee diversity that enables those displays," Mola said.

"It sure would be sad to lose such a charismatic bird that is so approachable and lives in such symbiosis with our people here in Colorado," Panjabi said.

Mola says some actions that might help bumble populations include restoring habitat, supporting forest ecosystems and increasing floral resources.

For both kinds of pollinators, there's a lot even the experts don't know. They say more research on them will be crucial in conserving them. The Recovering Americas Wildlife Act, currently pending in U.S. Congress, would devote $1.4 billion dollars a year to support research and conservation of non-game species.

Coloradans can take small steps in their own backyards to support pollinators:

Panjabi says feeding hummingbirds can help their populations, especially in drought years when there are less flowers for them to feed on. Panjabi recommends boiling one part sugar with four parts water, cooling it, then filling a hummingbird feeder and hanging it in a shady spot outside. There's no need to use red dye or buy a solution.

Be sure to replace the nectar every couple days and keep feeders clean. Panjabi does not recommend feeding birds if you have outdoor cats. He also recommends putting reflective stickers or other deterrents on windows to prevent birds flying into them and dying.

As for bees, Mola recommends planting flowers or getting a native bee hotel. However, he does not recommend keeping honeybees. Honeybees are not native to Colorado, and they may have negative effects on native bees.

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