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.

Late Summer Blooms

Lately I’ve been noticing the flowers. Despite the fact that the weather has been hot enough to grill a steak directly on the asphalt, I make it a daily habit to go for a walk through my neighborhood. The primary purpose of my daily walk is cardiovascular exercise–I also run twice a week–but my walking time gives me the added opportunity to observe local wildlife, primarily plants. Since I’m not keeping a rigorous pace when I walk, I can easily stop and take photos, despite the odd glance from passersby. Because I live in a residential area and not in the wilderness, most of the really attractive plants I see are domesticated. Occasionally there are wild ones that escape the attention of homeowners, and they’re especially fascinating. Below are some of my most notable plant-finds and late summer blooms from the area.

In my garden, I grow fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) which is a wonderful plant for attracting pollinating insects. The blossoms are sunburst-yellow, and the fragrance is dazzling. Whenever I pass within ten feet of my fennel at this time of year, I can tell simply by the smell. It reminds me of licorice and childhood daydreams. Perhaps it’s for that reason that I cherish it, but I’m not the only one. One of the types of paper wasps that comes to it frequently at this time of year is Polistes dorsalis. (I looked for a common name and couldn’t find one sadly.) The yellow stripes on this beautiful insect are as distinctive as the rust-brown which covers the rest of the wasp. And they’re doubly welcomed by me due to the fact that they take grubs and soft-bodied insects back to their nests to feed their young. Talk about resourceful.

At the Hillsborough Riverwalk, I recently stumbled upon this striking specimen of pokeberry (Phytolacca americana), which grows wild in this area. Despite its resemblance to grapes, it’s not edible by humans. It’s rarely lethal, but ingesting it should be avoided unless one has an extensive background in its preparation and use. It is nonetheless used as one component in the anticarcinogenic herbal supplement called Hoxsey Formula. To my understanding, it was also used by native tribes in this region as a dye due to its striking color and semi-permanence.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) has to be one of my favorite wild blossoms. Though the leaves of the plant are fairly unremarkable, the flowers are distinctive for the spherical shape they produce. Composed of a multitude of protruding florets, the blossoms are actually many distinct flowers which share a common stem. Their color is also notable for the shade that varies from faint lavender to intense fuchsia. Finally, as if all of these traits weren’t enough to distinguish it, red clover is a nitrogen-fixer–which means that it enriches the soil wherever it grows–and produces the building blocks of coumarin–which is industrially produced as the anticoagulant coumadin.

The last of my late summer blooms is another one from my garden. I’ve been growing this rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) for approximately five years, and it’s one of the hardiest and tastiest plants I’ve ever come across. Admittedly the flavor is strong in large amounts, but the fragrance is utterly transfixing. It makes me think of pine forests in the spring when birdsong is in the air and the sun is high in the sky. It’s really something. In addition it’s incredibly hardy and can withstand intense heat and drought, being a native of the Mediterranean. It has a reputation for being a remarkable memory-enhancer and is quite good as a tea when steeped in hot water with honey. Finally rosemary produces these lovely blooms, which are tiny and delicate but have such character in the gently curving stamens and softly drooping periwinkle petals. As you may have guessed by now, I love these plants.

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