After a long and arduous winter for some, it’s finally spring. For a lot of you, that means time outdoors gardening, doing yard work, or just enjoying the sunshine. Take it easy. Old Man Winter made you work for it this year.
However, life isn’t so easy for some of our insect brethren. Specifically, the humble honeybee. Honey bees have been in steep decline for almost a decade. The effects of further bee colony collapse will be widespread and devastating. Data from the 2012-2013 winter indicate that U.S. bee keepers have lost just over 45 percent of their hives.
So what if we lose a few bees? Well, bees are pollinators, and, as we all know, to get the most genetic diversity, plants need something to help spread its pollen. The plant feeds the bee, the bee proliferates the pollen among a lot of different plants. It’s a win-win.
But what happens when a type of bee is removed from an ecosystem? You might be forgiven for thinking that another type of bee or another insect or bird would take its place. However, that’s not what the evidence indicates. A 2013 study looked at bees in Colorado. The researchers removed one type of bumble bee from a population of larkspur plants, which in turn was next to a patch of wild flowers. What they found was that other types of bees became more generalized and visited a wider variety of plants. This may sound fine, but it’s really not, at least from the plant’s perspective. The bees were depositing the wrong type of pollen in the larkspur plants, which resulted in a decrease in seed production by a third.
It may sound unimportant, but it’s hugely important. Honeybees are literally responsible for much of the food on our table. Commercial agriculture relies on honeybees to pollinate about 100 key crops, including apples, nuts and alfalfa, which is important for cows.
There are a lot of reasons the honeybee population is in decline (factory farms being one of them), but a big part of the problem is you. Well, us. All of us, with our perfect lawns. Our war on flowering plants and weeds is doing nothing to help the bee population. Don’t cry! You didn’t know! But now you do, and there are some real, tangible things you can do to help your local bee population.
According to the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab, the three things you need to have for a bee-friendly garden are food, water and cover. The food and water are pretty self explanatory, but the bees also need cover so they can raise their young. The types of plants you should use will change with your region but, in general, you should try to choose native plants that vary in shape and color. The Xerces Society has a fairly comprehensive list of what plants are good for any region in the United States.
But maybe bees aren’t your thing. I get it. You can still help another insect population that is also going through a precipitous decline: the delicate monarch butterfly.
Monarch butterflies have been in trouble for a few years. They are famous for their yearly 2,500 mile migration from the continental United States down to Mexico, where they spend the winter. The problem is that the copious use of herbecide on farms is causing the main source of food for monarch larvae, the milkweed, to disappear. In 2012, an estimated 66 million monarchs made it to their winter home in Mexico. This winter saw just 33 million wintering monarchs.
It can be daunting to go up against factory farms in defense of a butterfly. Luckily, we don’t have to. Like with the honeybee, there are things you can do in your own garden to help. Monarch Watch out of the University of Kansas provides the raw materials to create a “monarch way station.” These way stations take the place of milkweed and nectar rich flowers that used to grow in what are now farms. Luckily for you, now is just the time of year to plant milkweed, which is necessary for monarch larvae to grow to adulthood. It’s also a great time of year for lilac, candytuft and primrose, each a good source of nectar. And there are many more, depending on what season you want.
Speaking from experience, butterfly gardens are the best. I remember as a kid watching the monarch migration from my living room window. It was gorgeous. It’s heartbreaking to think that we’re endangering this phenomenon.
Sometimes, large-scale environmental changes can be daunting to try to combat on your own. But these are two cases where, not only is there something you can do to help, but you also get a beautiful garden to enjoy, as well.
Photo Credit: Laurie Branham via Flickr