Kristina Lefever will talk about: who the pollinators are, why they are important, why they are disappearing, what we can do to help them, and how to turn our gardens into safe and nurturing havens for the pollinators. Your local native bees, butterflies, flies, wasps, beetles and hummingbirds will thank you.
OXFORD, Pa. — I GREW up thinking little of plants. I was interested in snakes and turtles, then insects and, eventually, birds. Now I like plants. But I still like the life they create even more.
Plants are as close to biological miracles as a scientist could dare admit. After all, they allow us, and nearly every other species, to eat sunlight, by creating the nourishment that drives food webs on this planet. As if that weren’t enough, plants also produce oxygen, build topsoil and hold it in place, prevent floods, sequester carbon dioxide, buffer extreme weather and clean our water. Considering all this, you might think we gardeners would value plants for what they do. Instead, we value them for what they look like.
When we design our home landscapes, too many of us choose beautiful plants from all over the world, without considering their ability to support life within our local ecosystems.
Last summer I did a simple experiment at home to measure just how different the plants we use for landscaping can be in supporting local animals. I compared a young white oak in my yard with one of the Bradford pears in my neighbor’s yard. Both trees are the same size, but Bradford pears are ornamentals from Asia, while white oaks are native to eastern North America. I walked around each tree and counted the caterpillars on their leaves at head height. I found 410 caterpillars on the white oak (comprising 19 different species), and only one caterpillar (an inchworm) on the Bradford pear.
Was this a fluke? Hardly. The next day I repeated my survey on a different white oak and Bradford pear. This time I found 233 caterpillars on the white oak (comprising 15 species) and, again, only one on the Bradford pear.
Why such huge differences? It’s simple: Plants don’t want to be eaten, so they have loaded their tissues with nasty chemicals that would kill most insects if eaten. Insects do eat plants, though, and they achieve this by adapting to the chemical defenses of just one or two plant lineages. So some have evolved to eat oak trees without dying, while others have specialized in native cherries or ashes and so on.
But local insects have only just met Bradford pears, in an evolutionary sense, and have not had the time — millennia — required to adapt to their chemical defenses. And so Bradford pears stand virtually untouched in my neighbor’s yard.
In the past, we thought this was a good thing. After all, Asian ornamentals were planted to look pretty, and we certainly didn’t want insects eating them. We were happy with our perfect pears, burning bushes, Japanese barberries, porcelain berries, golden rain trees, crape myrtles, privets, bush honeysuckles and all the other foreign ornamentals.
But there are serious ecological consequences to such choices, and another exercise you can do at home makes them clear. This spring, if you live in North America, put up a chickadee nest box in your yard. If you are lucky, a pair of chickadees will move in and raise a family. While they are feeding their young, watch what the chickadees bring to the nest: mostly caterpillars. Both parents take turns feeding the chicks, enabling them to bring a caterpillar to the nest once every three minutes. And they do this from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. for each of the 16 to 18 days it takes the chicks to fledge. That’s a total of 350 to 570 caterpillars every day, depending on how many chicks they have. So, an incredible 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars are required to make one clutch of chickadees.
And chickadees are tiny birds: just a third of an ounce. What if you wanted to support red-bellied woodpeckers in your yard, a bird that is about eight times heavier than a chickadee? How many caterpillars would that take?
What we plant in our landscapes determines what can live in our landscapes. Controlling what grows in our yards is like playing God. By favoring productive species, we can create life, and by using nonnative plants, we can prevent it.
An American yard dominated by Asian ornamentals does not produce nearly the quantity and diversity of insects needed for birds to reproduce. Some might argue that we should just let those birds breed “in nature.” That worked in the past, but now there simply is not enough “nature” left. And it shows. Many bird species in North America have declined drastically in the past 40 years.
Fortunately, more and more gardeners are realizing that their yards offer one of the most empowering conservation options we have, and are sharing their properties with the nature around them.
By the way, you might assume that my oak was riddled with unsightly caterpillar holes, but not so. Since birds eat most of the caterpillars before they get very large, from 10 feet away the oak looked as perfect as a Bradford pear.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 11, 2015, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening.
All animal photos by Douglas W. Tallamy except the woodpecker. Rob Cardillo for The New York Times (violets), Susan Farley for The New York Times (black-eyed Susans), Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times (mayapple), William Widmer for The New York Times (oak), Randy Harris for The New York Times (pawpaw), Mike Mergen (spicebush), Scott Camazine/Getty Images (bayberry), Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency (milkweed) and John McNamara (woodpecker).
Scientists tell us there is a worldwide big decline of insect species. We depend on insect pollinators to pollinate the plants we eat. Without them we would starve. Honeybees as well as wild bees and other pollinators are seriously threatened by pesticides and mites, as well as by climate changes. One response we need to take is to stop the poisons, the pesticides and support bees. We can learn more about neonicotinoid pesticides, glyphosate and other toxins and work to educate and eradicate their use. Alternatives exist such as planting native grasses. Klamath Siskiyou Native Seeds is a small company locally that sells native grass seeds, such as California Brome, Blue Wild Rye, Roemer’s Fescue and Lemmon’s Needlegrass, as well as others. These grasses are resistant to fire, very hardy and can help eliminate the need to spray pesticides on our land. Take a look at their website.
Another response alongside that is to intensively support wild pollinators. One excellent one is Mason bees, also called blue orchard bees. They are very woolly so they get coated with pollen. 100 mason bees can pollinate as many trees as a 1000 honey bees. They also stay close, only traveling about 130 feet so they won’t go far and get infected with distant pesticides. They also will come out when it is still too cool for honeybees, so they are crucial early season pollinators. They are solitary bees, not living in hives. Each female lays eggs in hollow places. We can duplicate that by building mason bee boxes, or buying them.
A mason bee box is usually a little birdhouse shaped box or a big bamboo tube, filled with 6″ long cardboard tubes that are like little straws about a 1/4 inch wide. We can buy paper straws to go inside the cardboard straws so we can discard the used paper straws at the end of each season. That reduces the infestation of harmful mites in the tubes. We can hang those bee boxes in our gardens or orchards, out of direct sun, like under an eave. The female mason bees will put a dollop of pollen food with an egg in it, in the tube and then dam it up with wet clay. (I think that’s why they are called mason bees, like a stone mason.) Then they will repeat with four or five more eggs in the same tube, one after the other. It is crucial to have an area of moist clay on the ground near the mounted mason bee box. They need clay to dam up the eggs. Look them up on google. In the Spring they hatch out and start doing their work, similar to bumblebees and other wild bees.
We can also support all the pollinators by planting many flowers, shrubs and herbs that pollinators like to feast on. Plan for some that bloom early and some that bloom late in the season, to give a wide range of support to pollinators. We get to enjoy the beauty at the same time and have our food plants pollinated. A win-win.
At our farm, ThistledownOrchards.com, in Selma, Oregon, we plan to build Mason bee boxes to sell to other farmers, gardeners and orchardists to support the local mason bees. You can also buy them online.
About the author – I’m a former 9-year elected pension fund trustee and board chairman. I hold a financial planning certificate and a masters in public health education from UC Berkeley and a masters in counseling psychology. I’ve been a California licensed Marriage & Family Therapist since 1991. I began my medicine man training in my first vision quest in 1973. I was initiated as a medicine man in 2016. I have been studying Aikido for 30 years and received 3 black belts. I live and practice in Oregon as a coach, health educator, farmer, storyteller, puppeteer and musician and enjoy playing music, tending our fruit orchards, and spending time with my partner and my two wonderful children.
Jerry Allen, LMFT, SEP, MPH, Anishinaabe Mashkikiiwinini (Medicine Man)
Gratitude Way Counseling, Coaching and Health Education – firstname.lastname@example.org
“Hi! This is about parasitic wasps, some of the coolest wasps. They’re kind of like H.R. Giger’s Alien (you know, like the one that burst out of John Hurt’s chest in 1979). You may not like wasps, but they’re pretty fascinating nonetheless. They’re pretty useful biocontrol agents, and though you might not see them you would notice the difference if they were gone. I learned some interesting things about parasitoid venoms and mating strategies. Have a read, or maybe just check out the pictures.” Travis Owen
Anyone that knows me knows that I love wasps. I think you should love them, too. Here I will attempt to familiarize you with the world of the non-stinging wasps known as the parasitoids. Parasitic wasps do not have true stings, as the aculeate wasps [and bees] do. These parasitoids have ovipositors, which are used to lay, or sometimes inject, eggs. While there are aculeate parasitoids, the aculeates do not have ovipositors. (The exception is the Chrysididae, the cuckoo wasps, which are aculeates which evolved their own unique ovipositors independently from the parasitoids featured in this piece.) The aculeate sting evolved from an ovipositor many millions of years ago…. READ MORE
Native bees are an unappreciated treasure, with 4,000 species from tiny Perdita to large carpenter bees, they can be found anywhere in North America where flowers bloom.
Most people don’t realize that there were no honey bees in America until the white settlers brought hives from Europe. These resourceful insects promptly managed to escape domestication, forming swarms and setting up housekeeping in hollow trees, other cavities or even exposed to the elements just as they had been doing in their native lands.
Native pollinators, in particular bees, had been doing all the pollination in this continent before the arrival of that import from the Old World. They continue to do a great deal of it, especially when it comes to native plants.
The program Travis Owen was doing for the March 26th SRV meeting – on the wild bees of Southern Oregon – has been postponed until a later date due to weird weather throwing off the Honeybee business. We are shooting for June. Please check back with us. We look forward to this program!
We are joining with the Unitarian Universalists at a table at this years Siskiyou Film Festival. We hope you will support KS Wild by going to the FilmFest on Sunday afternoon from 3 pm – 8 pm for several hours of wonderful entertainment, education and good locally sourced food by Chef Kirsten.
Learn more about the recently funded RCC RainGarden and Bioswale Project we will be doing in collaboration with the RCC folks in 2017-18. We are beginning the planning for it at the February 26th meeting.If you are interested in helping or learning more come to the February meeting.
Then, at the March meeting, we are fortunate enough to have Travis Owen, a local wild bee expert (or “amateur anthecologist”!) speaking to us about our local bees and ways we can protect and support them as well as learn to recognize them! This will be on March 26th at the UU Fellowship at 12:30 pm. We hope you will join us! Find lots of interesting material on bees, wasps and moths on his website: http://www.amateuranthecologist.com/