The old saying, “Don’t sweat the little things” doesn’t work during pandemics. For decades the majority of the industrialized world has ignored or controlled the small stuff to build the big stuff we’re convinced we rely on. In many cases we do. Now, in the face of a global health crisis, our sanity — and our futures — may reside in spending a lot more time looking at, and being with, the little things. More time than worrying over the number of toilet paper squares we need to get through the day.
Around the I Spy! garden and beyond
Close your eyes and picture a pollinator garden. I bet you see lots of flowers, busy bees, butterflies, jousting hummingbirds (if you’re in the Americas), hovering flower flies, maybe a moth or two. Look at the scene again. Are there any grasses (other than lawn) in your picture? If not this garden is missing an important landscape and ecological component that benefits pollinators and a host of other critters that keep the system humming. Think of a garden without grasses as a cake crafted without baking soda. The finished product is edible, but might be a bit of a let-down.
Grasses: beyond the forever mowing variety
Grasses serve multiple purposes in the landscape. Their visual interest can be magical. Some are short, clumpy, and cute. Others stand in the middle ground, some tall and supple, waving their blades and awns delicately in the breeze. Colors, ranging from light to dark green, buff to golds, oranges or red capture light and shades that change throughout the day and seasons.
Non-invasive ornamental and native grasses save water and money spent on fertilizers and other maintenance chores of traditional sod lawns. Low-care varieties can replace lawns altogether and still take traffic and look tidy. Deep root systems of native grasses make them perfect plants for water-wise gardens or erosion control while offering numerous wildlife benefits.
Grasses – links in the eco-web
As foreground, background, or intermixed with flowers and shrubs, grasses in the pollinator garden provide important areas for numerous insects and insect pollinators to feed, reproduce, and find shelter from storms and predators or to chill out during winter as they wait for spring. Grasses and sedges offer perching spots for male butterflies to scout for females.
Some butterflies and moths rely on specific native grass plants as hosts to hide their eggs and provide food for their caterpillars. Prairie grass research shows 36 species of butterflies and moths depend on 17 native grass species as host plants.
Adult pollinators may have plenty of flowers for nectar in your neighborhood, but if their specific grass or sedge species are missing, their life cycle ends with the adult. Your garden and, ultimately, the world will have fewer visitors next year.
Songbird babies depend on caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects to develop and thrive. Eighty percent of a hummingbird’s diet is small insects and spiders. They use spider webs to strengthen their nests.
Almost 3 billion breeding birds disappeared from U.S. and Canadian landscapes over the last 50 years, primarily due to habitat loss, including native plants. Our garden caterpillars and small insects can and do play a pivotal role in bolstering the future of our bird and wildlife populations.
Adult birds use grasses to construct or line nests. Bunch grasses, with their compact bases, provide insects safe winter hibernation, either on or below the soil. Their bunchy quality at the base leaves small bare dirt areas between plants that are critical to solitary and semi-social ground-nesting bees. The federally endangered Rusty patched bumble bee is but one.
Reptiles and amphibians also rely on insects, important in keeping some of our pest species under control.
Alligator lizards, for example, prey on grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches. Snakes eat insects, small birds, and mammals like mice.
Snakes, lizards, frogs, and small mammals that use grasses for cover and hunting are on the menu for raptors like the Red-shouldered hawk.
Add native grasses and plants to your garden
As you plan your fall garden work, find spaces to insert native grasses or sedges. Ornamentals have their place, but be careful not to buy and plant some of the most popular non-natives, which have proven to be unwelcome invasives. The best source of information and help (North America) is your local or state native plant society. State societies can direct you to chapters within your region or local areas. It may not be easy to find native grasses, but the website Native Plant has a list of nurseries across the states that may carry what you need. Encourage your local nurseries to stock more native grasses and plants, too.
Happy end of Pollinator Month. But every month remember — carry a butterfly on your shoulder . . .
and a bee in your heart.
A realization hit me after an early trip to the grocery store pre-COVID-19 shutdown. Sections of shelves were bare, the usual, relied upon foods or products were missing or in short supply. Anxious faces, including mine, glanced right, left, and center, trying to make sense of these familiar, yet surreal surroundings. A critical element of our survival — ready access to food — was under threat. The burning question, how deep the threat and how long would it last?
In the first weeks, toilet paper shortages created panic buying.
We now hear key medicines could become harder to get, threatening the lives of people with health issues like diabetes. Without creative thinking (perhaps self-control) contraceptive shortages will definitely change people’s lives. There are concerns that during the outbreak hospitals will be unavailable or unsafe for mothers giving birth, especially those at high risk or in rural areas.
Second only to people getting sick or dying from the virus, all but essential businesses are shuttered, employees let go or laid off. The ability to raise money, a driving reality in all our lives, means society’s underpinnings have weakened and the bottom-line security for many is gone or deeply damaged. And we are creatures who hate confinement.
For many years, I’ve been involved in one aspect of the environment or another, lately on pollinator conservation. Conditions affecting the lives of other creatures suddenly seem all-too-true for human beings. Due to the COVID-19 virus are we not facing similar realities that the natural world has faced every day for a century? The biggest impact? Stress levels have skyrocketed.
Stress is the inability of an animal to adequately deal with its environment. Whether a lack of food, water, shelter, medicine, disease, pollution, climate changes, and freedom of movement, without basic securities all animals suffer some level of stress. All stress affects our ability to be productive even survive.
What the COVID-19 pandemic challenges remind me is that many animals in our world experience similar trials attempting to survive and produce a successful next generation. On a daily basis, their world is not about fulfillment, it’s about scarcity. While a large number of people in this country and around the world endure lives steeped in scarcity, most of us don’t. We expect so much to be at our fingertips. As if it is our right.
Food: A trip to the grocery store should be easy, right? We know where the food is. We buy what we like and can afford. Heaven forbid our favorite pasta sauce should be our-of-stock for two weeks, or the “must-have” out-of-season fruit is tasteless and “too” expensive.
Medicine: Although there’s a lot wrong with the system (sometimes the care), we get treatment if we are sick or need mental health support.
Housing: The majority of people have adequate, if not superior, shelter.
Communication and connection: In a flash, we connect with the small circle of those we love or with millions of virtual “friends” and strangers. Various forms of entertainment help us relax or deal with stress. If we’ve the money, we can change scenery and get access to anything we want or need.
How many animals experience anything remotely close to these basic securities in their lives? Fewer every day. In order to create our real and imagined living and entertainment needs, habitat loss has escalated so sharply much of the natural world is in crisis, in some areas to serious levels. Given the rates of some changes, the ability to adapt and change for most animals is limited if not impossible.
Food supplies, medicinal and host plants needed to survive, produce the next generation or provide shelter are reduced or gone, replaced by crops, lawn and hybrid plants. Many of these as useless to wildlife as a plastic cup.
Water is limited or diverted, streams and wetlands covered, breeding grounds lost to development or agriculture. Communication corridors (think courting whales, birds, insects, amphibians) are overrun with noise — shipping, undersea military explosions, airplanes, automobiles. Pesticides and pollutions harm us all, but the smallest in the food chain the most and the most immediate.
We’re all affected by changes that have happened to the planet since the beginning of the Industrial Age. We’ve just been too self-consumed and too noisy to experience the cost.
COVID-19 has generated stress levels unknown for decades, maybe centuries. It has also granted us many gifts. Perhaps the most precious and important is the quiet.
Nature feels it too. If it knew how to thank this deadly disease, I think it would.
We have this brief chance to notice, to pay attention, and to hear. What will change if we see our own struggles mirrored in the nature around us? If we better appreciate how we’re not so different? To feel the importance of not only filling our basic needs, but also what it means to go without. What will it take to imagine and live ways of change?
It’s World Habitat Day. Don’t you love these “recognition” days, helping us remember and think about important stuff? Well, maybe some aren’t so monumental, but Habitat/habitat, regardless of where and how you live, is the biggest issue we’ve got. It covers everything. Continue reading
Happy World Bee Day!
Wow! Are there more than honey bees out there and are they ever busy. Wild bees all over the world are pollinating all kinds of plants that benefit not only us, but every ecosystem.
Sam Droege of the USGS Bee Identification and Monitoring Lab put together this terrific slide show celebrating native bees. The images are from the lab’s permanent research collection.
“25 Facts About North American Wild Bees.” How many of these facts are news to you? I counted 7. Most interesting to me are #4, #13, and #21.
Like all pollinators, native bees are in trouble – even more so than honey bees. What can we do to help these often over-looked wonders? Plant the native plants of your area, not cultivars, if possible. Check online for native plant societies in your area. They will have lists.
Confession: my yard has lots of non-native plants the bees love, but there’s no way of knowing whether they contain the level of nutrients the bees need to be their best. We’re working to add more straight native plants so all our pollinators (and other critters) benefit.
It’s a day to open our eyes and ears and give a big nod of gratitude to these insect “workhorses” of the planet.
Here are a few photos of the wild bees active in my yard during spring and summer. I’m still learning species, so not all are identified.
Two days ago, I spotted a single Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly sunning on a pile of wood chips. With all the rain we’ve had, seeing even one butterfly is an early treat.
Stepping out this afternoon, dozens of butterflies filled the sky, buds, and blooms on our rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum). Traveling north from the Mojave desert up to the Pacific Northwest, some Ladies (and their gents) have veered off their normal interior CA migration route to skim along the coast. Ours may not mirror or rival the Southern California explosion, but I’m ecstatic!
Here on the Northern CA coast, the nights have been cool, so native spring-flowering plants are slower to get started. My manzanitas and huckleberry are coming along, but not getting a lot of action. So far, honey bees from the neighbor’s hive and the native “Yellow-faced” bumble bees ( Bombus vosnesenskii) are the only active bee species I’ve seen around the yard. Hover flies are busy, though. Everyone love the rosemary, grevillea, and teas. Anna’s hummingbirds have been here all year, and they’re now having to share resources with the Allen’s.
Are you seeing Painted Ladies or other butterflies already this spring?
If you want to contribute your P.L. sightings to science, check out this project at Iowa State University: vanessa.ent.iastate.edu
Butterfly common name – scientific name; Host plants; Adult food = host and nectar plants
• Red Admiral – Vanessa atalanta Nettle family (Urticaceae) including stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), tall wild nettle (U. gracilis), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), pellitory (Parietoria pennsylvanica), mamaki (Pipturus albidus), and possibly hops (Humulus); Prefer sap flows on trees, fermenting fruit, and bird droppings; visiting flowers only when these are not available. Then they will nectar at common milkweed, red clover, aster, and alfalfa, among others.
• Painted Lady – Vanessa cardui More than 100 host plants noted; favorites include thistles, hollyhock and mallow (Malvaceae), and various legumes (Fabaceae); The Painted Lady prefers nectar from composites 3-6 feet high, especially thistles; also aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, and joe-pye weed. Flowers from other families that are visited include red clover, buttonbush, privet, and milkweeds.
• West Coast Lady – Vanessa annabella Mallow family (Malvaceae) including tree mallow (Lavatera), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea), bush mallow (Malvastrum), mallow (Malva), alkali mallow (Sida), checkerbloom (Sidalcea), and hollyhock (Althea); Flower nectar.
• American Lady – Vanessa virginiensis Plants in the sunflower family everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), plantain-leaved pussy toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), wormwood (Artemisia), ironweed (Vernonia), and burdock (Arctium); Flower nectar almost exclusively, including dogbane, aster, goldenrod, marigold, selfheal, common milkweed, and vetch.
Want to start your own I Spy! garden watch? Download a free poster or link to lots of gardening and pollinator ID resources section from my new workbook, I Spy! Who’s Using My Garden? A Pollinator Garden Workbook.
Walks in my pollinator garden are always “I Spy” adventures. I’m tracking which pollinators are using the plants, flowers, and extra water and food resources I’ve provided. These include two hummingbird feeders. A few days ago another group of “I spy” eyes locked onto the feeders . . . honey bees. Maybe they’re from a wild colony or domesticated bees from a neighbor’s box. Either way, a scout made it back to the hive to do its boogie, woogie, waggle dance and map out the way to a sugar fest in my yard. Continue reading
It’s the middle of National Pollinator Week. We’re headed for the heart of summer and peak pollinator activity. I hope things are buzzing, fluttering, and chirping at your house these days. They are around here. Spring and early summer are my favorite seasons with pollinators scouting out and feasting on our garden and local wildland flowers. Each bloom contributes to the lives and renewal of some of the most valuable and vulnerable species on the planet.
So, I was dismayed when my daughter told me someone was stealing sunflowers from her wildflower/pollinator patch. We decided her best response was to turn upset into an educational opportunity. She put up a poster I’d designed for an event and added a Please Don’t Steal sign. We made packets of California poppy, sunflower, and hollyhock seeds she collected last year and put them in a “Take one” box in her front yard. The neighbors were delighted.
Last year on Earth Day I was raising a sign for rational thought and action in the March for Science. This year, I’m spending it on my knees in my garden planting for pollinators. All pollinators: bees, birds, butterflies, moths, flies, bats, beetles – indeed all flying insects face increasing risks each year from habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and disease.
Last week’s House of Representative committee amendments to the proposed Farm Bill would seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act, allowing the unrestricted use of pesticides, many proven to harm or kill the species we depend on.
There are many ways to counter pollinator losses. Certainly, politically, but also by making your home, garden, and behaviors pollinator friendly.