Nature Loves (Benign) Slobs
For decades now, I’ve been researching ways to help nurture flora and fauna as well as the planet. Increasingly it seems like many of the same things are devastating or beneficial to every living thing, from sequoias and and whales down to worms and soil dwelling bacteria. Not surprisingly, devastators include destructive logging, extractive mining, and soil degrading agricultural practices as well as the widespread use of toxic pesticides at work and at home. Basic beneficials include leaving nature environments alone and doing as little harm as possible. That includes using few or no pesticides, but it also includes being benign slobs.
Benign slobs don’t toss trash everywhere, but they also don’t keep homes and gardens or landscapes obsessively clean and tidy. Nature, as has often been observed, is not tidy in human terms. Generous, bold, abundant, inventive, and endlessly fecund, yes, but tidy, not so much. Thus, when we humans impose our ideas of beauty and order on the natural world, the natural world suffers.
Consider the Bee
To paraphrase Carl Jung, people do not change destructive habits and behaviors unless they hit bottom or fall in love. No sane person cheerfully looks forward to the bottom hitting bits, but falling in love is a more appealing prospect. On the premise that we are most apt to protect what we love and care about, it behooves us to learn all we can about our astonishing planet, because quite truly, to know it is to love it.
For the past few decades, numerous campaigns have been organized to try to save the bees. The result has been, if anything, an increase in bee loss for both native and imported species. There are many factors at play but it’s horribly obvious that too many of us prefer pesticides to pollinators. If you really want to help nurture bees, and butterflies, and birds, and all kinds of creatures, here’s the simplest way to go about it.
Allow A Little Wildness
Indoors and out, do not use pesticides, herbicides, weed-and-feed products, toxic pre-emergents, or even nasty household cleaners and hand ‘sterilizers’. Just don’t. Instead of attacking the problem you see, support the solution that will eliminate the problem. Build soil health, spread mulch deeply, and provide adequate water (but not too much) as needed. Choose plants that can thrive in your conditions and place them where they get the conditions they need.
Once the land you live on is not being poisoned, find a place, or a few places, where you can encourage a touch of the wild. Here you can create your pollinator habitat or sanctuary. Even a small spot will do; many small lives can be protected in very little space. Native plants are obvious choices for such places, but just growing natives is not quite enough. We must also steel ourselves to allow a little disarray. Mulch is fine, but letting native perennials and grasses (aka ‘weeds’) infiltrate is even better. In the untidy tangle, birds and bees can build nests and lay eggs, butterflies can hang cocoons, and slug-eating garden snakes can find shelter. A host of beneficial insects can also camp there, happily preying on insect garden pests.
Pollinator Homes & Gardens
To accommodate these beneficial creatures, it’s most helpful to grow plants that provide an ongoing sequence of blooms from late winter into late autumn. Make sure there are lots of flowers, since they offer pollen and nectar that feed native pollinators as well as European honeybees. Don’t worry if you don’t have acres wide to devote to the cause; even a few pots of long bloomers can support a significant number of bees (and what gardener doesn’t appreciate a righteous excuse to grow flowers?).
Here in Western Washington, the Ed Hume seed company sells packets of seed mixtures blended to nurture pollinators, including hummingbirds and butterflies as well as all sorts of bees. This is good, since there are hundreds if not thousands of native bee species in these parts, from mason bees and leafcutter bees to digger bees and carpenter bees. Most are solitary bees, which don’t live in colonial hives. Instead, they make homes in tangles of grass, in empty shells, in hollow logs or abandoned rodent runs.
Promoting Pollinators Promotes Produce
Solitary bees lay eggs that hatch into larva (white Pillsbury dough boy puffsters), then become pupa (bug-eyed baby space aliens) before turning into adults. Solitary bees can be generalists, resilient species that willingly visit many kinds of flowers, or specialists that can’t survive without very specific plant species. Bumble bees are the only native bees that are colonial, like honeybees, but they are seasonal workers that die at summer’s end. Only young, fertilized queens will hibernate until spring, when they awaken to start creating new colonies.
To please this wide array of bee species, the folks at Ed Hume Seeds consulted with the Xerces Society For Invertebrate Conservation, an extremely effective entity founded by Robert Michael Pyle (a fellow Washingtonian). The mix they put together contains some 18 species of wildflowers, including lance leaved coreopsis, purple coneflower, sunflower, perennial lupine, annual lupine, blanketflower, crimson clover, partridge pea, california poppy, Mexican hat, cosmos, lacy phacelia, plains coreopsis, butterfly milkweed, blue sage, poached egg flower, meadow-foam, Rocky Mountain penstemon, lemon mint, and bee balm. Obviously there are many non-native species mixed in, but overall, it is a blend designed to appeal to and nurture native solitary bees, bumble bees, honey bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds from spring into autumn. Having these pollinators around will boost crops of many fruits as well as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers, and the produce will be heftier as well.
Here’s the link to learn more about Xerces: http://www.xerces.org/story/