Letter from Birdland: Our pollinators need more love
I wrote last week that I'd tell you more about my conversation with John Marlin, the curator of the prairie in front of the Archives Research Center, and ever since our conversation, I've noticed more and more little pockets of prairie on campus. For example, the little yard in front of the Campus Honors Program house is abloom with coneflowers, both yellow and purple.
It reminds me of another of John's points, that every little bit helps. With our modern ideas of landscaping, we have created large areas, especially in the newer subdivisions, with no native plants, the equivalent of a desert for native insects.
Sure, a yard may have blossoms, but if they're not native, these blooms may not be edible for many native species. Some are even toxic. For example, most insects can't eat milkweed, but milkweed is the only plant Monarch caterpillars can eat.
John reminds us that our native insects have evolved in tandem with native plants for millions of years and are now interdependent. The plants depend on the pollinators for reproduction; the pollinators depend on the plants for food.
Why is this important? Well, even people who are not fond of insects for themselves might enjoy birdsong. John pointed out that over 90 percent of bird species need insect larvae to feed their young.
By replacing native plants with non-native cultivars, we are systematically reducing the amount of insect larvae available. Reducing habitat can reduce insect populations, which can in turn affect bird populations.
John's message nicely dovetails with what I learned recently in my agriculture class, Growing the Next Generation of Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers.
Kelly Allsup, a horticulture Extension educator, spoke to us about the problem of pollinator decline. She told us that old horticultural practices were actually bad for native pollinators, so we are rethinking them.
She tells us that tilling the garden destroys bee habitat because many native bees nest in the ground. Mowing the roadsides in the country can decimate the native bee population. Kelly argued for more tolerance for different kinds of gardens.
"Are you guys going to call and complain?" she asked us, "because your neighbors plant native plants or vegetables in their front yard?" If we plant more diverse native plants, we'll have a greater diversity of pollinators.
Neither Kelly nor John is asking for complete conversion. John said he doesn't mind seeing some nursery flowers, and Kelly says that if we can just convert 10 percent of turf lawns to native plants, we can stop the decline of native pollinators.
In the end, Kelly told us that climate change is too big of a problem for us to tackle individually, and we can't do much about new diseases and organisms that have evolved to attack the bees, but we can, she said, do something about pollinator decline.
"You guys could create pollinator gardens around your farms," she tells us. "You can manage your pesticide use in a bee-friendly way."
Kelly directed us to the Bee Spotter website (beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/). The Bee Spotter Project seeks to link citizen scientists with professional scientists. It is an information-rich, yet elegantly simple site. It has easy instructions for creating a bee-friendly garden.
The four basic steps are 1) Choose plants attractive to bees. 2) Limit the use of toxic insecticides. 3) Provide shelter in your garden for bees. 4) Create habitat to support the entire life cycle of the pollinator from egg to larva to adult.
The site gives lots of detail and example and gives us lots of opportunities to learn practical techniques to observe bees and to help. If you want more depth, the site offers scientific articles.
It's important that we act. John spoke of his fear that the next generation will miss out on experiences that we took for granted.
"If we're not careful, our kids will grow up without knowing what the big butterflies — swallowtails and monarchs are," John said.
"I know," I said. "This year, I keep seeing a few fireflies, thinking that in the next few days we'll see the fields all lit up, but each night, there are still only just a few."
"You noticed that?" John seems surprised that someone else is paying attention. I begin to feel depressed, and John hits that home with his next statement: "We are gradually sterilizing the human environment."
But then John drives me out to look at one last plot. It seems more regular, more planned than the 2.3-acre site at Florida and Orchard. This one is 15 feet by 30 feet, still pretty large for a backyard, but he leaves me with a final thought: that even a small plot can make a big difference.
Even the Bee Spotter website tells us that we "do not have to uproot our current garden in order to attract more bees. Flowers that attract bees can be planted between existing flowers or potted and placed throughout the yard."
Then I think that if we lost our natural habitat gradually, we can gradually replace it. I decide to go home and convert more of my yard from lawn to native plants. Join me?
Plant in beauty; pollinate peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. You can read more about the Prairie Restoration at icap.sustainability.illinois.edu/project/prairie-restoration-florida-orchard. For more information about Red Bison, check out redbison.heroku.com. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via snail mail care of this newspaper.