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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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.

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Taxonomic Cornucopia

by Mark Miles

In the spirit of gratitude that ideally characterizes this time of year, I’ve decided to share what I’m thankful for at any time of year, specifically wildlife. Every encounter with a wild animal or plant is a gift and one that’s increasingly scarce in many urban areas. Personally I live in a small town that’s largely rural, but even here you don’t have to look far to find new strip malls, housing subdivisions, and assorted industrial eyesores. Still, there are opportunities to encounter wildlife in almost any region, and each encounter is a reason to be thankful–provided you’re not being eaten for dinner of course.

In September, I stumbled upon this remarkable moth on the siding of my house. I was immediately dumbfounded by the vibrant coloration and markings, though at the time I had no idea what species she was. Despite not knowing the species, I did know the sex from a glance at the antennae–which are thick and furry in males, narrow and smooth in females. It’s easy to remember if you think of antlers, which are morphologically analogous to antennae and which are usually bigger in males than females. In any case, I was able to identify the species after a bit of searching, using the coloration and markings to point me to the orange-tipped oakworm moth (Anisota senatoria).

Though I was thankful to see this little western honey bee (Apis mellifera) a couple weeks ago, I must admit I was pretty stunned. I can’t remember a year in living memory when bees have been active in North Carolina in November. Usually by late September they’ve gone into hibernation. However, with daytime temperatures exceeding 80° F on more than one occasion, it’s not terribly surprising. My rosemary is still more than happy to keep blooming, which gave this worker bee ample reason to make the unseasonal trek in search of pollen to feed her sisters.

Here’s another unseasonal bit of wildlife from the area. In my backyard I have a good amount of sweet violet (Viola odorata) which typically becomes dormant by early October. That’s not the case this year, and it’s only because of last week’s hard frost that most of the flowering plants have started to take the hint that it’s not still summer. Regardless of all that, I’m thankful whenever I see the brilliant white and purple of sweet violet.

For a number of years, the two willow oaks (Quercos phellos) in my front yard have been unable to produce acorns. It started around 2008 when strange markings–which appeared to be holes made by a power tool–appeared on both of them at the same time. For several years after that, my oaks stopped producing any acorns, and it’s only been recently that they’ve become fecund again. Even though these acorns are small for trees that are fully mature, I’m thankful that they’re here to provide food for the squirrels in winter.

Lately I’ve been trying to grow sawtooth blackberries (Rubus argutus) from seed. I gathered some wild blackberries a few months ago, put them in pots with soil, placed them in my sunniest window, and waited… and waited… and waited. After three months, I was pretty convinced those berries were never going to germinate. Then, of all things, I looked at my pots last week and saw–could it be?–actual sprouts. You have no idea how thankful I was at that moment, and I’m not even ashamed to admit it.

At the beginning of November I saw this eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) near the edge of a field that’s been left fallow recently. I thoroughly expected him to run as soon as he saw me, but instead he stared at me with the intensity of a laser-beam. All his senses were attuned to my presence, and I couldn’t help wondering what experiences had led him to be so hypervigilant in the presence of humans. Of course cottontail rabbits have every reason to be terrified of everything since only twenty percent of them survive to adulthood. The vast majority are killed by predators, starvation, poisoning or traffic. In short, their lives are a living nightmare due to the way in which industrial society has decimated their habitats, food-supply, and territorial contiguity. Despite that, I was thankful for the trust expressed by this rabbit who allowed me to be in the same space with him for a few quiet moments.

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