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.

Late Frost with Early Flowers

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in central North Carolina fluctuating between 80° F and 40° F depending on the day of the week, it’s difficult to decide what season we’re in. This is further complicated by the fact that we had frost in March (and may have it again in April), but we had 70° temperatures in January and February. On the whole, one may be inclined to assume that somebody with lots of money and no conscience is presently reverse-engineering the climate.

Still the plants are generally in agreement that spring, however fickle and indecisive this year, has arrived. Truthfully there were distinct signs of it by January, so this should come as no surprise to anyone with half a brain. And while many plants and trees have been damaged or stunted due to the late frost, plenty of others are in full bloom, which recently led me to take photos of the resulting botanical beauty.

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Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has always been a favorite of mine. From my earliest childhood, I’ve made a habit of picking the small crimson fruits in late May to taste the color of the season. (At the rate they’re growing this year, I may be able to pick them by late April.) They tend not to be terribly flavorful in this region, but I wonder if depleted soils are partially to blame for this. Additionally the leaves of the plant have been used to treat cough and diarrhea in historical times.

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Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is considered by many to be a pest, and there may be some validity to that assessment in some circumstances. However the plant is also a great source of nutrition for many foraging animals, including chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Historically chickweed has also been used by humans to treat coughs, hemorrhoids, and sore eyes. Personally I find its most redeeming quality to be the delicate white flowers which are so small they can almost be mistaken for specks of stardust.

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I must admit I’d never seen this particular plant before my March hike at Eno River State Park. Once I’d spotted it, however, I saw it everywhere. In fact it was hard to take a step in some parts of the park without risking the life of one or more of these dainty flowers. Only after a bit of research at a later date did I find the plant’s identity. Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a native to this region and also goes by the name fairy spud. The name alone would be enough for me to love the plant, but there’s more. All of the aerial parts of the plant are safe for human consumption and have been eaten by the Algonquin people, among others, for centuries.

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In my yard, I have two examples of peony (Paeonia spp). Due to the late frost and early spring, the leaves and blossoms are frail and skinny, but the plants are doing their best to compensate for their diminished size with an extra dose of magenta along the stems, leaves, and buds. I have a feeling the blossoms will also be diminished in size this year, but that won’t change the fact that peony petals can be steeped in hot water to produce an herbal infusion that’s reputed to be a delicacy in China. To top it all off, certain species of peony have even been used historically to treat convulsions, which makes it the most beautiful anticonvulsant I’ve ever seen.

Image Credits:

1. Strawberry Delight (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Chickweed Has Me Seeing Stars (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Fairy Spud Strikes Again (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Peony with Eager Ants (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Dwyer, James and David Rattray, eds.; Magic and Medicine of Plants (Pleasantville, NY, USA: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1986); pp. 138, 339.

Love Breaks Down the Walls of Difference

by Mark Miles

Sometimes it’s tempting to believe that living separately from others who are noticeably different is a good thing. This idea has been present in our society for a long time, and under the current US presidential administration it’s gaining renewed emphasis. While the wall that Trump plans to build along the Mexico-US border is superficially about keeping immigrants out, it’s also about keeping the rest of us in — in boxes, ghettos, suburbs, strip malls, and prisons of our own making. It’s about making sure that all of us color inside the lines, think inside the margins, and live inside the repressive excuse for a free society that our leaders have built. In short, it’s about turning our entire society into a giant penal colony.

But there are other ways to live. There are ways to live that integrate people of other races and ethnicities without degrading anyone’s quality of life. There are ways to live that respect the distinctness of each culture without requiring that members of each culture live in clearly defined and virulently policed ghettos. There are ways to live that are close to nature, that embrace the importance of diversity, and that engender harmony among people of many backgrounds. For my own small part, I’ve tried to model this way of life with my cat Heidi and my dog Bella.

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When Heidi came to live with me in October of 2014, she was an antisocial mess. She peed and pooped where she wasn’t supposed to, tore up my bedsheets, tried to attack Bella, stayed up at all hours of the night, drew blood from my arm, and generally made life miserable. Under the circumstances I was tempted to put her in her kennel and never let her out again. It was my moment of angst, in which repression seemed the more manageable solution and integration seemed untenable. But something inside me rebelled at the thought of locking up a living being for any duration longer than absolutely necessary. I wanted to do the right thing; and so I allowed myself and Heidi and Bella to continue to interact without resorting to boxes and barriers in general, making sure that boundaries were respected at all times.

It wasn’t always pleasant or easy, but it was the right thing to do. Whereas Heidi and Bella would frequently come within a hair’s breadth of mauling one another in the first weeks after I got Heidi, they did eventually begin to mellow. Over the course of months Heidi began to sit on the couch and the loveseat with Bella in a state of calm attentiveness from time to time, and Bella allowed the intrusion on her furniture without too much fuss. As months turned into a year, they could occasionally be found sitting within inches of one another, tentatively inspecting one another and always keeping one eye peeled for a sudden move from the other. Then, after two years, something slightly miraculous happened.

It was a month ago. Heidi and Bella were sitting on the couch drinking in the early morning sun, at closer proximity than usual. Heidi as usual was the one to initiate a move when the sunlight started to shift position. Bella was too relaxed to make any objection, and I was too preoccupied with making breakfast to take note of how things were going on the couch. Then I happened to walk past the two of them on my way to the front door, and I saw this unprecedented sight. Heidi was spread out right next to Bella, side by side, with her head on Bella’s forelegs, licking her sister with the affection of a puppy. It was hard to believe what I saw, but that was when I knew my love for both of them — which had prevented me from walling them off from each other — had paid off.

And that was also when I began to appreciate in greater depth how love stands in direct opposition to fear. It’s fear that motivates us to avoid others who look different, who wear unusual clothes, who speak other languages, or who simply don’t have the money to buy all the worthless junk that our society considers essential for success. It’s fear that motivates us to build walls, to shut people out of our lives, to live in socioeconomic bubbles in which the only kinds of people we come into contact with are carbon copies of ourselves. It’s fear that lies at the heart of Trump’s Wall, and the only answer to fear is love. For it’s only when we love one another from the depths of our souls that we find the strength to tear down any and every wall that stands between us. And it’s a love I know because of my darlings, Heidi and Bella.

Image Credits:

1. Loveseat Dropkick (Mark Miles, 2015)

2. Sisterly Love (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

American Psychological Association; Ethnic and Racial Minorities and Socioeconomic Status; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Semuels, Alana; “The Resurrection of America’s Slums”; The Atlantic; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Unruh, Bob; “Pew: Divide in America Deeper than Ever Before”; WND; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Vaidyanathan, Rajini; Why Don’t Black and White Americans Live Together; BBC News; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Found & Lost & Found

Living with a cat is rarely boring. I’ve known this for a long time, but Heidi has reminded me of the fact in numerous ways in the time I’ve had her. Since the two-year-anniversary of her adoption was last month, I’ve been thinking about those early days lately. It was a time during which I was almost certain I would lose my hair or my sanity or both. I didn’t, but it was a hard road that led to the relationship we now have.

First of all, I was given Heidi by a friend of mine who knew I wanted a cat and took the initiative to help me to find one. I wasn’t picky about the details, so she ended up settling on one from Craigslist who was in a family that already had too many other animals and needed to find someone with the time and energy to devote to her. I’m passingly familiar with Craigslist’s reputation in general, so I was bit a hesitant but relented when I realized the amount of paperwork that many shelters require of potential owners. Consequently I found myself with a new cat, and the adventure soon began.

From the beginning Heidi was a handful. She was thankfully housebroken, but that was basically the extent of her socialization. She was extremely confrontational, rarely made eye-contact, tried to attack me, had little patience for my dog Bella, howled in the middle of the night, refused to eat virtually anything, and was generally a pain in the ass. Nonetheless, I realized that a great deal of her attitude was simply the result of being taken from her home–however overcrowded and neglectful it may have been–and being brought to a new place about which she knew nothing and where she had no reason to trust anyone. I understood the difficulty for her, and I gave her time to acclimate accordingly.

The biggest problem turned out to be her nocturnal proclivities. She was extremely active at night and would frequently jump very loudly from one place to another directly outside my bedroom. She would also howl with the most infernal regularity. As much as I didn’t want to resort to it, I eventually got her a kennel and started to use it at night to keep her out of my hair so I could get some sleep, which I desperately needed.

The kennel, however, presented issues of its own, which I soon discovered. Heidi is extremely energetic, and when I would put her in the kennel at night, she would struggle valiantly to resist my efforts. It was really frustrating for me and obviously traumatizing to her, since she had no way of knowing if I would forget about her and leave her there permanently. Of course I never did and never would, but she had no way of knowing that.

So we continued the nightly charade. I would attempt to round her up using whatever means I could, and she would jump from one surface to another attempting to evade capture with the agility of a trained athlete. By the end I would generally find myself frustrated, exhausted and guilty. At the same time she would be disgruntled and ready to take advantage of any opportunity for payback. Tension was rising, and a breaking point was inevitable.

Finally it happened. I’d been making sure to keep Heidi inside, since I was afraid she’d run away and get hurt, and I’d been successful in preventing her departure until this point. Then the day came when I opened the front door, didn’t pay attention to where she was at the time, and promptly saw her bolt into the wild blue yonder with all the speed that a homesick cat can muster. I was sad to see her go, but strangely I was also relieved–relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with her contentiousness, relieved that I wouldn’t have to clean up her litter box, and relieved that I could get a decent night’s sleep for the first time in weeks.

But I was still worried. The first day passed, and my worry was at a manageable level. I figured that she was scouting the terrain and acquainting herself with the neighborhood animals. By the morning of the second day, my worry was at a moderate level. I was beginning to think of how easily she could be run over and how awful I would feel if that happened. By the morning of the third day, I was basically grief-stricken and had resigned myself to the inevitable. I assumed that I had seen the last of her and that our story had come to end almost before it had begun.

And then, on the night of the third day after she’d left, I heard a plaintive meow coming from my backyard. I was at the back door and started searching for her with the intensity of a blue-tick hound. I called her tentatively, and with hardly any hesitation she sauntered up to me from the shadows and rubbed against me as if nothing at all had happened. In that moment, I was more grateful than words could say.

As a result I stopped shoving her in the kennel at night. Instead I kept her in the laundry room and gave her free reign of all its considerable shelving. I also started making a habit of letting her go outdoors whenever she wanted, since I realized that the danger to her was lessened if she had the experience and confidence to handle herself in the outdoors on a daily basis. If I had attempted to force her to stay indoors, she would’ve resented me, escaped at the first available opportunity, and eventually done something stupid because she didn’t have the experience to know to avoid it. And that would’ve defeated the purpose of everything I’d done.

And so a new peace was established between us which has lasted to this day. She comes and goes as she pleases, and I rest easy knowing that she can handle herself with skill and composure in a variety of situations. She sleeps anywhere in the house she wants except my bedroom, and I get a good night’s sleep without having to hear her howling to the moon. I can genuinely say that we’re the best of friends, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though what she gets out of snuggling amongst my underwear is anyone’s guess.

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Mistress of Surprises

I’ve lived with cats for the majority of my life. First there was Kitty, the black part-Siamese brought home by my sister Michelle when I was five or six. Then there was Taffy, the white-and-grey runt of the litter brought home by my sister Melanie when I was nine. Then there was Sophie, the speckled brown-and-tan Maine Coon given to me by my mom when I was nineteen. I also lived briefly with a cat named Ritz who was my brother’s, but I was never close to her and didn’t spend much time with her. Still, I’ve had enough experience with cats to know what to expect in general.

So when I got Heidi in September, 2014, I was pretty sure there would be no surprises. Yet, in small ways, she surprises me continually. One of the ways in which she does so is by jumping to a location of interest and assuming a lookout. Now Kitty also did the same thing, jumping to considerable heights in order to gain access to something of interest, including the second-story porch and his bed. But Heidi jumps to a lookout and then simply surveys the terrain or assumes a precarious reclining position with her head hanging over the edge, tempting fate. She also occasionally uses these lookouts as launchpads for sneak attacks on her sister. Don’t worry though; no claws are allowed.

Another way in which she distinguishes herself is by her easy alternation between indoors and outdoors. All my other cats have been solidly one or the other. Kitty and Ritz were both solidly outdoor cats, only tolerating the indoors when required. Taffy and Sophie were solidly indoor cats, only venturing outdoors on rare occasions. There was a clear dividing line between the two groups.

Heidi, however, is another story. She spends a roughly equivalent duration of time indoors and outdoors. During inclement weather she prefers to be indoors; rain is a surefire way to bring her to the doorstep. And when the weather is agreeable she prefers to be outdoors, sunning herself or checking out neighborhood squirrels with a carnivorous eye. Of all my cats, she’s by far the most adaptable and well-rounded.

As with all things, there’s a reason for this. I’ve been very lenient with Heidi,  and I prefer to let her do as she pleases as long as there’s no serious risk involved. I’ve done my best to earn her trust by treating her as an independent and autonomous being, which she is. This keeps her happy and allows me to save energy by not having to struggle with her over inconsequential issues, issues which generally have far more to do with human ego than biological necessity. And with this kind of relationship, a relationship based on mutual respect, many pleasant surprises are possible.

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