Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

By now most people are aware of the fact that honeybees are facing the very real threat of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honeybees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honeybees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries. Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honeybees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honeybee dies.

In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honeybees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances. In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators: 1) I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible; 2) I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy; and 3) I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard. Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honeybees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

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Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honeybees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honeybees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

Another pollinator plant in my yard — that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon — is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honeybees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival. To that end we need to do a few things. 1) We need to hold biopharmaceutical corporations — which are primarily responsible for manufacturing pesticides — accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities. 2) We need to stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops. 3) We need to support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people. 4) We need to get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can. 5) We need to show enough love and appreciation for those essential pollinators in our own backyards to help them in whatever way we can. For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare for all of us.

Image Credits:

1. Honeybee at Work (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Bee Balm in Bloom (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. I Can Almost Smell the Peony Perfume (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. White Clover Dances in the Wind (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Pink Woodsorrel Steals the Show (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Batsakis, Anthea, “What Is Colony Collapse Disorder — and Is There Hope for Bees?Cosmos Magazine, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Ellis, J., “Why Are Honey Bees Disappearing?” University of Florida, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Sarich, Christina, “List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees,” Natural Society, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Shell, Robbie, “What We Know — and Don’t Know — about Colony Collapse Disorder,” excerpted from Bees on the Roof, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Adventures in Identification

As you may have guessed by now, I’m endlessly fascinated by insect and arachnid life. As a kid, I would often roam in the forest near my house and catch arthropods in jars to add to my collection. Unfortunately I was a child and had no understanding of how to care for these little creatures, and in the majority of instances they ended up dying from starvation or eating one another. One particularly feisty praying mantis even managed to grab my finger and simply… wouldn’t… let go. It was awkward and slightly terrifying.

Since that time, I’ve mended my ways. Now I only admire and take pictures of the insects and arachnids with whom I come into contact. Occasionally they’ll come close to me or will even land on my finger, but I don’t force contact. It strikes me as bad manners and is also unethical. With all that said, here are my latest and most interesting adventures in identification.

This moth was actually in my house when I found him. He was hanging around the kitchen–where most of the moths that come into my house tend to congregate–and climbed onto my finger after I gently nudged him. He was completely calm, and I managed to take several shots of him, of which this was my favorite. It took me a doozy of a time to identify him, but I’m fairly certain he’s a ruddy Metarranthis moth (Metarranthis duaria), which has to be one of the worst names I’ve ever heard. Nevertheless he was a beauty, and I took him outside after our photoshoot, where he has presumably lived out his mothy days.

This cicada turned up in my front yard, dead when I found her. There was a very odd white coloration on her underside, which indicates a fungal infection and which is unfortunately an increasingly widespread cause of death for many cicadas. I was sad to see that she had died in such an unpleasant way, but I couldn’t help admiring her incredible coloration. If you look at the region covering her head and thorax, you can see a mixture of green, black and brown in overlapping irregular patterns. I was later able to identify her as a scissor-grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus), but to me she’ll always be the original camouflage.

I have to admit, I nearly crushed this little guy when I found him at Eno River State Park in August. I had noticed a beautiful sycamore, which I promptly inspected for photographic potential. I didn’t find any particularly good angles; but as I was inspecting the tree, I placed my hand against the trunk and felt a weird, cool, slightly slippery sensation. I immediately retracted my hand and found this beauty. Later I was able to identify him as an iron worm (Narceus americana)–which is by far the most amazing name I’ve come across in a while–though the more common name is the North American millipede. They’re harmless to humans, but they can release an unsavory substance that discolors the skin. Fortunately that didn’t happen in my case, and we parted on amicable terms.

This last arthropod was one I found at a local carwash of all places. She had built her web at the base of the teller machine, and it was impossible not to see her as I inserted dollar bills. After I’d gotten my quarters for the carwash, I promptly swooped down to her level and took several photos, of which this was the best. She was by far the easiest identification of the four arthropods in this post, since I had only recently read an article about the yellow garden spider (Agriope aurantia) and immediately recognized the brilliant black, yellow and white markings and the characteristic zig-zag formation in the center of her web, which is called a stabilimentum. Its purpose is unclear to scientists, but it provides her with another of her common names, the writing spider. For obvious reasons, she may be my new spirit animal.

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