Bees, Beauty, and Biodiversity

It used to be that beauty was enough. If the lawn looked good and we had a few shrubs and a few flowers, we could relax, having done our duty to the neighborhood.

Now we have to be water-wise, save the bees and the Monarch Butterflies, and on top of that, we’ve got to have Biodiversity.

I think this is a good trend. Gardens are more than something to look at. They are a piece of Nature and the more diverse they are, the more like Nature they are.

And Nature can use a lot of support right now, because we humans have taken a lot of their habitat. Animals and insects have lost food supplies, water and living spaces.

The good news is that if we even have a small plot of land, we can help our pollinators and beneficial insects. We can help our birds, toads and other wildlife. We can work for a balance between our needs and theirs. We can enjoy natural beauty with flowers and form and shade and at the same time save water, and save the earth. This is not a joke. We can do this if we put our minds to it; especially if neighbors work together to create supportive habitats.

Now that the populations of bees and butterflies are reduced by 40%-50%, it is obvious that we have to do something to help. And humans all around the world are recognizing the importance of pollinators and other insects to our own survival.

85%-90% of our native and flowering plants require pollination to produce seeds and fruits which is how they multiply and survive. A third of our human food requires the activity of pollinators. Most insects are beneficial or non-pests and they are food for birds, beneficial insects and fish.

So how do we garden in such a way that supports Nature? We provide the birds and the bees what they need: food, shelter, water and a healthy environment. So, to begin with it is very important that we kick the pesticide habit and deal with pest problems using non-toxic methods.

The new nicotine pesticides called neonicotinoids are extremely bad for bees and all other insects including earthworms and ladybugs. There are hundreds of formulations and so it may be difficult to tell if what you are buying is safe for bees. It is good to write down names and do a web search. If you use a lawn, maintenance of tree service, get the list of ingredients they plan to use, BEFORE you hire them and look them up so you can say no to poisons. And ask your nurseries if they use neonics on their plants. These are nerve poisons that are in all parts of the plants and last from 3 months to 5 years. They not only kill bees and worms, they kill the beneficial insects that keep pest populations in balance.

When we think about providing food for bees, pollinators and beneficial insects, we learn about the importance of biodiversity. Why because Biodiversity means simply “a diverse biology”. In other words, many kinds of living things that have different habits and life styles, needs and timings. This kind of rich environment allows Nature to seek its own balance. A recent study by the US Geological Survey demonstrated that diversity is necessary for a healthy ecosystem. It showed that “…you cannot have a sustainable, productive ecosystem without maintaining biodiversity in the landscape.”

Here is one example: We all love tomatoes. Science tells us that tomatoes don’t need bees because they can self-pollinate. But when tomatoes get regular visits from bumblebees, “they make more and bigger tomatoes, up to 50% increase in yield and tomatoes twice as big.”

Here is another example: If you plant herbs near your vegetables and let those herbs flower, they will attract beneficial insects which will eat the aphids and other pests they would eat your veggies.

Stuart Hill from Mc Gill University once said, “If you grow plants that flower through the whole season, you will get more protection than that same investment in pesticides.” That is because you are not killing off, but instead supporting the beneficials.

We have been taught to be afraid of bees and wasps and bugs in the garden and that we should kill whatever we see. Of the 946 species of native bees, almost none can sting and even wasps and hornets do not sting unless they are threatened. It is the Yellow Jackets that attack people and sting them, especially in the fall.

We need to grow plants that bloom through the whole season because even the beneficials that eat other bugs or parasitize them, need nectar to supplement their diet. And the greater the variety of plants that we grow the greater the variety of insects and pollinators they will support. Even trees and shrubs with flowers that are not showy to us, still provide places for butterflies to spend the night or for bees to drink the water from their leaves. The caterpillar phase of butterflies and moths need to eat leaves, so it is good to have some large food plants like fennel or chokecherry for butterfly larvae to feed on.

And when we plant flowers, it really helps bees save energy by planting a grouping of each kind. That not only makes for a stronger visual impact-wow- but has a stronger attraction to hummingbirds and bees who then spend less energy looking for food. And it good to plant our native plants that evolved with our native bees and butterflies. Bees love yellow, blue and purple flowers. And many herbs that have clusters of tiny flowers are very beneficial to bees and butterflies. Even non-popular pollinators like Soldier Beetles, Hover Flies and Ants have positive functions in the garden.

Pollinators need water, like all living things. And besides providing a bird bath, it is very helpful to have a shallow dish of water on the ground with fine gravel or sand for the bees and toads.

And very important also is supporting the life of the soil. If you feed the soil and give the microorganisms the carbon and nitrogen they need for their prosperity, that nutrition will go into the plants and from the plants, that health will go into us humans who eat those plants.

To join of start a bee safe neighborhood go to BeeSafeBoulder.org

To get a list of the best plants for wildlife for your area go to the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.org/nwfgarden and type in your zip code.

To get products free of neonicotinoids go to McGuckin Hardware and Harlequin’s Gardens. Also, all plants at Harlequin’s Gardens are free of neonicotinoids and most are free of all pesticides

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