Monday, April 14, 2014

April is Poetry Month 2014: Kumin's "The Brown Mountain"

Maxine Kumin
This past year, we have lost fine poets that I grew up reading. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Maxine Kumin all made nature their poetic home and the source of their word-hoards.  Each was from a different home ecosystem and thus utilized different language and imagery. Yet their subject matter carried in common the themes of beauty, death, love, and life with others that great lyric poetry entails. Walcott’s high-flown eloquence, Heaney’s stubborn earthiness, Kumin’s plain speech; all are worth reading and savoring.

Just recently I was out in the backyard stirring my still-frozen compost heap, muttering incantations--imprecations--under my breath as I endeavored to wake it up for spring.  Maxine Kumin lived on a horse farm, and her compost heap was of another order entirely. For Poetry Month this year I present her meditation on compost.

The Brown Mountain

What dies out of us and our creatures,
out of our fields and gardens,
comes slowly back to improve us:
the entire mat of nasturtiums
after frost has blackened them,
sunflower heads the birds have picked clean, the still
sticky stalks of milkweed
torn from the pasture, coffee grounds,
eggshells, moldy potatoes,
the tough little trees that once 
were crowded with brussels sprouts,
tomatoes cat-faced or bitten into
by inquisitive chipmunks,
gargantuan cucumbers gone soft
from repose. Not the corn stalks and shucks,
not windfall apples. These
are sanctified by the horses.
The lettuces are revised
as rabbit pellets, holy with nitrogen.
Whatever fodder is offered the sheep
comes back to us as raisins
of useful dung.

Compost is our future.
The turgid brown mountain
steams, releasing
the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments--
cat vomit, macerated mice,
rotten squash, burst berries,
a mare's placenta, failed melons,
dog hair, hoof parings--arises
a rapture of blackest humus.
Dirt to top-dress, dig in. Dirt fit
for the gardens of commoner and king.
 (From Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010)

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Hedgerows in Norfolk
One night during my October visit to the British historian's cottage the wind blew hard from midnight on, roaring in off the North Sea, carrying on in unabated vigor all the way from Iceland. I'd woken at dawn, listened to the wind and rain for a bit and gone back to sleep before getting up for a late-ish breakfast. The rain continued in spurts all day, and in between showers we went out and did garden chores, such as spreading well-rotted horse manure in a new garden bed where some raspberry canes would be planted in spring and planting out garlic and onions. It seemed strange to me to be planting food crops in autumn, after harvest. The process brought new understanding of why the ancient peoples of this land could celebrate the New Year directly after harvest: planting season lasts all year, nothing ever seems to stop growing, and little appears to go completely dormant in the way an Illinoisan understands the word.

After the weather cleared a little more, my friend and I went for a walk along a narrow lane edged on both sides by hedgerows in order to pick blackberries from eight-foot tall brambles that were growing up through a tangle of roses, sloes, buckthorn, small oaks, holly, hawthorn and all kinds of other things--a crowded community also including turf grass, nettles, nightshade, English ivy, bindweed, creeping Charlie, poppies and dandelions. Again, as in the cornfield we had traversed previously, I had an eerie sensation of familiarity, as though I was slipping between continents. We Americans might not grow sloes, and consequently not produce sloe gin, as the historian's friends do, and our oaks and hawthorns are of course different species--yet it was easy to recognize the plants. It was even odder to see buckthorn, that bully of the Midwestern woodlands and savannas, behaving itself--no more and no less than a citizen of the hedgerow.

Blackberries have a deeper, wilder taste than raspberries, almost smoky, if you were describing them like a wine. My friend makes a compote that is a delightful topping for the breakfast muesli and milk or yogurt. Her aim was to gather enough--the season was almost over--to put up enough to carry through for several more months. We addressed ourselves assiduously to walking and picking, water falling off the leaves--still green!--on our hands and coats, our boots going damp from the low plants and grass at the verges. Proceeding at this rate can take a very long time to get even a hundred feet, so we were truly lingering, which gave ample opportunity to observe what was growing. There were a few late raspberries, too, that I ate and savored as we went.

Though there seemed to be a luxurious abundance of hedgerows in the area I was visiting, they are endangered in England, for many of the same reasons that Midwestern fencerows, once the refuge of birds, wild plants and beneficial insects, have all but disappeared. On the train through Cambridgeshire I had seen fairly large American-style fields, all plowed furrows inhabited by big tractors with nary a hedgerow in sight. I imagined getting off the train to go talk to those farmers: don't repeat our misdoings, I would say. Learn from our mistakes. You'll be sorry, someday, in the way that some of us in Illinois are sorry, with our nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, atrazine-laced groundwater, our plowing up of even marginal land, our lost habitat and consequently lost species (and our own lost selves?). But there's money to be made, they, I'm sure, would answer, as almost any Illinois farmer would. Though one good sign lately is that a few of the latter have started to put small areas of erstwhile corn acreage into produce production. Some have been taking classes to learn how to grow not-corn and not-soy. The new US farm bill even throws a pittance of support at what are called “specialty crops,” e.g. fruits and vegetables. And once Illinois farmers truly embrace fruits and vegetables as worthy of growing, can rejuvenated fencerows and hedgerows be far behind? One hopes, fervently.

However. The Cambridgeshire farmers perhaps haven't gotten that far along through the wreck-regret-repair cycle, and the train carried me on to Norfolk, where plenty of these diverse, edge habitats remain and people dedicated to their preservation seemingly prevail. According to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk has lost nearly half its hedgerows, mostly since World War II. But that has slowed down as people have come to understand just how valuable they are as a way to store carbon, provide habitat for rare and endangered species--and berries for foraging. The Trust defines a hedgerow as "any line of trees or shrubs, over 1 meter tall and over 20 meters long, less than 5 meters wide at the base and with less than 30% of the hedgerow being gaps." This definition neglects the understory and ground cover layers of grasses and forbs, yet seems reasonable. The 5 meter dimension is interesting to me, since hedgerows here in the States can potentially be well over 15 feet wide, especially when they involve large trees such as hickories and unless someone keeps the osage orange trees seriously chopped back. Still, that width does seem appropriate. Wider than that, and what you have is probably another kind of woodsy area that is no longer a hedgerow meant to separate fields and line roads.

Workers laying a hedge
Also, it might be wise to distinguish between those hedgerows maintained according to the ancient craft of laying, in which branches are interlaced and pegged down so that everything grows together, forming a living fence, and the ones such as those between which we were ambulating, which clearly were not, though they obviously had been kept trimmed. There is an old story that laid hedgerows never caught on in the U.S. because Americans were just too lazy to go to all that trouble. Alternative explanations claim that American farmers were too busy establishing farms and then lighting out for the territories shortly thereafter, so there was no point in taking on a project that could last a lifetime to do right; or that we just plain had too much space to enclose and had to do it quickly.

At the time it didn't occur to me to ask how English hedgerows are maintained these days, much as I'm sure casual visitors to the woodland savannah I help manage usually don't wonder how in spring and summer it is so full of wildflowers growing in such profusion. It's easy to imagine humans had nothing to do with it. In my experience, backed up by that of many native peoples I have read about, a landscape in the middle of the continuum between unpeopled wilderness and the manicured suburb, where people dwell as citizens of the ecological community, can be managed in a way that is beneficial for other species besides humans. Even though it is cultivated and has been "tamed," a patchwork, mosaic landscape with hedgerows, coppices, and managed woodlots as well as less managed areas like wetlands and riparian bottomlands can be a healthy landscape, abundant and fertile, with room and habitat enough for all.

Note: You can see the Norfolk Hedgerow Action Plan here:

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Walking through a Cornfield in Norfolk
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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Walking Through a Cornfield in Norfolk

"A Norfolk Hedgerow" by Edward Seago
In October, I went to visit my friend the British historian and her husband at their home in Norfolk, England. I hadn’t been out of the country, much less the Midwest, in years, and I missed England, to which I have an attachment. My friends live in a very old cottage with solar panels on the roof, a big garden out back, and a share in an allotment. This was just the kind of visit I like: staying in the country, going for long walks, working in the garden, birdwatching at the seashore—so much in so many ways so different from Illinois, though I must say the part of Norfolk where they live is about as flat as the Chicago Lake Plain, and for analogous reasons. Which is how I found myself doing something I’ve done on multiple occasions in Illinois—walking through a cornfield.

One day, after a lunch of cheese, apples and bread, we went to the allotment to harvest vegetables for dinner. We decided to take a long, scenic way back, walking along a footpath along hedgerows and through fields. This is one of the things I like about England, all the walking paths that go across farms and alongside pastures—ancient ways some of them are, even thousands of years old. It seems that landowners have a responsibility to make sure these paths are kept clear, whether by law or not, I don’t know. These narrow paths certainly beat trying to access scenery in the U. S., where what’s private is no trespassing and what’s public is either on the highway or in some park with clearly defined borders. The driftless region of Wisconsin, for example: this is one of my favorite places, an ancient, never-glaciated, enticing landscape of winding little valleys and worn and weathered, pine-covered, rock-girded hills that begs one to get out of the car and off the road to do a little exploration. But can one? No, one cannot. A perfect illustration of what makes the US countryside so frustrating.

So we walked along, me identifying plants and my friend supplying names for those I didn’t know; but when we got to where the path should have been kept open through a cornfield, it wasn’t. So, nothing for it but to trudge through, beating our way through the corn to the next part where the path clearly resumed through a copse. To an Illinoisan accustomed to vast, chemically-saturated, completely weed-free fields where the stalks stand up straight in phalanxes, in legions, in platoons and companies whose genetically modified ranks tower over one’s head, where if you go in far enough you could conceivably get lost, this small field was a novel experience. It was field corn, almost, but not quite, ready to harvest. The stalks, clearly not gmo, and apparently planted at random, lounged in a haphazard, casual crowd whose members stood between four and a half and six feet high. We could see where we were going but couldn't walk far in one direction. The soil was not hard clay, but was fairly soft, and had been fertilized with manure. There were copious weeds, many instantly identifiable. I realized I was standing in the middle of a prime example of the Columbian exchange, from the other side, as it were, “our” corn interplanted with “their” field poppies, nightshade, creeping Charlie, and a few others not immediately recognizable—at least there wasn’t any hedge bindweed. It also seemed to me that this was a site I might have seen in Illinois maybe a hundred years ago, or even fifty.

Who knows what the yield would be; it was easier to imagine the farmer harvesting for his own animals than selling it. And there were animals, too, on this farm, as my friend informed me, something else unusual to an Illinoisan. But in the soft English light the corn seemed healthy, the soil in fairly good shape, and the weeds not overwhelming. The air turned mizzly. Eventually we found ourselves at the copse and entered in under the trees, the path then continuing along a hedgerow where blackberries hung plump and tempting, mixed in with tall rose bushes—the roses gone to big fat hips—holly bushes, and an occasional young oak. Tea was very welcome when we got back.

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The Last Tomatoes
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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Listen to What the Birds Are Saying

What the Robin Knows offers keys to the real world

Often, when I might have been doing some chore or other in the garden, I've instead been sitting, watching the doings in my backyard. Other times I've gone into the woods for a short walk along the river and have ended up sitting for hours, watching and listening. The longer and quieter you sit, the more there is to see and hear. But except in a general way, I never realized how much information birds offer to anyone paying the right kind of attention. So I was intrigued when Gavin van Horn at City Creatures put up a charming post about encounters with a robin whose "language" he began to understand after reading John Young's What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

As an adolescent, Young was mentored by naturalist Tom Brown, Jr. and grew up to become a professional tracker, naturalist and teacher. The book, which is very readable, combines stories from his own education and experiences as a naturalist with discussions about what different calls and behaviors mean, and also offers useful guidelines to anyone who wishes to sharpen their own observational skills. Recorded examples of different kinds of situational calls compiled by his scientific consultant Dan Gardoqui are accessible on an accompanying website.

Birds communicate with each other, comment on the general state of the yard or woods, express territoriality, let the neighborhood know that a cat or other predator is lurking--and specific calls and behaviors express definite messages. They are the lookouts and news bearers in any given neighborhood--and other animals pay as much attention to their broadcasts as other birds. To begin to learn how this web of behavior and communication works, Young suggests that common backyard birds found nearly everywhere should be our guides and shows how anyone can learn to understand what a given situation might be and mean. Anyone, that is, with the patience to make it a habit to sit quietly, in a receptive frame of mind, in a place where birds are likely to be. 

Young offers other lessons as well. What the Robin Knows also opens a door to more ancient ways of understanding the natural world and our place within it that are often only encountered in stories and myth.

In some old stories there are personages--they might be hedge wizards, or wise women, they might be village elders or medicine men--who understand the language of the animals. This magical gift sometimes is given to a young hero or heroine to help complete a quest, solve a problem or effect a rescue, often by a tiny, wizened person encountered in the woods. The instructions are to drink the contents of the tiny flask or crack open the silver walnut only at a time of great need; suddenly, understanding what the birds and other animals are saying offers a way out of danger. And while western writers from Aesop to George Orwell use speaking animals as vehicles for commentary on human nature with stories that put people in animal guise, many Native American stories and shamanistic/animist religions approach this speech from the other side, as it were. Animals sometimes speak with the voices of the ecosystem, of the biosphere, of the spirit world, which worlds merge to create a landscape alive in a way that many people in modern society might not recognize.

These stories demonstrate a particular kind of wisdom well worth learning about how humans should behave towards the natural world and other creatures. Young explains how, in traditional societies, persons who can listen and comprehend the workings of the natural world are indeed wise and can help their people thrive in existential ways. The old reality is that our ancestors (and present-day members of indigenous cultures) relied for survival on a deep knowledge of the ways, habits and vocalizations of the other living creatures with whom they shared their world, knowledge that can seem magical to most of us. As Young points out, birds are gatekeepers: if, instead of noisily blundering about in the normal urban human way, a person moves quietly and mindfully, with an attitude of respect, the birds are far less likely to set off the alarms.  By learning bird language and how to behave when in natural settings we can begin to recover some of that old, vast, nearly forgotten inheritance which is all of ours by rights. Besides being a delightful way to spend time, you could say it's important for our survival.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love

Bumblebee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
In high summer, many gardeners take some time simply enjoy their gardens. It's not too soon, however, to be thinking about next year. I've started collecting seeds of native flowers, to sow immediately or to save and cold stratify for next spring's planting, as the case requires. If you want to make your garden more bee-friendly next year, here are some planting guidelines and a list of species suggestions. I have experience with every plant listed and therefore feel I can recommend them. Don't forget, many perennials can be planted in early fall. Though I am focusing on native bees, honey bees will also of course take advantage of the foraging opportunities you offer.  

In general
Bees and other pollinators such as butterflies prefer sunny areas that are protected from wind and offer plenty of different kind of flowers. Ideally there would be several types of flowers in bloom spring through fall. In my yard, different areas might be blooming at different times--but I have a small yard, so the bees don't seem to mind. Those with larger yards might plan for groupings of different varieties in one or more beds. No matter what size your yard or garden is, every area planted with mostly native flowers will be beneficial for pollinators, particularly in urban and suburban areas, because it increases the availability of pollen and nectar these creatures need to thrive. The plants listed here are suitable for large parts of the Midwest. This is not a complete list and something that works well for you might be left off. There are many more species of Midwestern prairie and savannah plants that could be included. If you live elsewhere, this simple rule applies: bees native to an area are best adapted to plants native to that area. Finding out what those plants are and adding them to your garden can be a worthwhile, enjoyable endeavor.

Learn more about native plants and use them in your garden 

According to the Xerces Society, "research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers." Garden herbs (allowed to flower) and annuals, especially heirloom varieties, can also provide good foraging. Avoid hybrids that have double blooms, since they often do not produce as much nectar or pollen. Native flowering shrubs also provide nectar and pollen for bees and often serve as host plants for caterpillars. If using non-native garden plants, please make sure they are not invasive in your area. Also, certain kinds of weeds (but definitely not all!) can be a good thing: early-appearing bumblebees appreciate dandelions and creeping Charlie, for example.  

Plan to have something in bloom all season long
Bees and butterflies fly at different times. They, and humans, appreciate a garden that has many varieties of flowers and a long season of bloom. If you mostly have native perennials, it's good to slip some long flowering annuals in various areas to keep going during perennials' in-between times. This is also a good strategy when starting a new area of young natives that might not bloom the first year.

Group flowers together in attractive drifts 
This old design rule makes good sense to bees as well as humans. Bees find good forage by sight. Clusters of flowers of the same species will attract more pollinators and enable better foraging than individual plants scattered through the garden. Where space allows, plant big clumps (at least four feet in diameter) or sizable drifts, which might require five or more plants.

Plant different types of flowers to support a wide variety of bees

Bees range in size from minute sweatbees at less than 1/8-in. to robust carpenter bees over an inch long. They also have different tongue lengths, and need suitable flowers. Some prefer flat, daisy-like flowers, while others prefer tubular blossoms. They are also attracted to brightly colored flowers that are blue, white, purple, and yellow--nor, in my observation, do they object to red.

Do not use insecticides in your garden

Even organic pesticides can be harmful. Other chemicals such as fungicides can be dangerous--to humans as well as bees.  I have discussed the dangers of neonicotinoids in "City Bees, Country Bees." Habitat loss and insecticide use are the two main threats to bees and butterflies. A well-run ecological garden attracts birds and beneficial insects that help keep pests to a minimum.

Suitable Plants
Spring can be a difficult time for native bees, especially in urban areas with few early-blooming perennials. Queen bumblebees emerge at this time and fly for several weeks foraging before settling down to make their nests.An asterisk denotes species that flourish in areas that become shady when the trees leaf out.
Native Perennials
*Columbine Aquilegia canadensis

Violets Viola spp.
*Virginia bluebells Mertensia pulmonoides
*Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum spp.

*Wild geranium Geranium spp.
Wild indigo Baptisia spp.
Non-native Perennials
Siberian Squill Scilla spp.
Chives Allium spp.
Periwinkle Vinca minor
Summer-Late Summer (into Fall) is a halcyon period for native bees if the foraging is good. Plenty of sources of nectar and pollen ensure good populations, which in turn insure a continuation of the species. Male bees use flowers as sheltered places to rest while they look for young queens with whom to mate.
Native Perennials
Aster Aster spp.

Beebalm Monarda spp.

Asters Aster spp.
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp.
Blazing Star Liatris spp.
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
Compass plant Silphium lanciatum
Cup plant Silphium perfoliatum
Giant hyssop Agastache spp.
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium spp.
Milkweed Asclepias spp.
Penstemon Penstemon
Liatris Liatris spp.
Phlox Phlox spp.
Purple coneflower Echinacea spp.
Rattlesnake master Eryngium spp.
Sage Salvia spp.
Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Sunflower Helianthus spp.
Tickseed Coreopsis spp.
Non-native Annuals and Perennials
Basil Ocimum spp.
Catmint Nepeta spp.
Cosmos Cosmos spp.
English lavender Lavandula
Marjoram Origanum
Marigold Tagetes
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Rosemary Rosmarinus
Salvia Salvia spp.
Stonecrop Sedum spp.
Zinnia Zinnia
Flowering Trees, Shrubs and Fruits offer more foraging opportunities from early spring through summer, and are often butterflies' preferred host plants.
Natives are bestChokeberry Aronia spp.
Dogwood Cornus spp.
Lilac Syringa vulgaris
Raspberry Rubus spp.
Redbud Cercis canadensis
Rose Rosa spp.
Serviceberry Amelanchier spp.
Strawberry Fragaria spp.
Viburnum Viburnum spp.
Willow Salix spp.
This is part of a series about how urban areas might offer the best hope and some of the best habitat for native bees. "City Bees, Country Bees" is here; "City Bees, Country Bees, Part 2" is here. The next post in this series will focus on what bees need besides flowers and will offer a few suggestions to vegetable gardeners as well.

References: Illinois Wildflowers,;  Xerces Society Fact Sheets, “Upper Midwest Plants for Native Bees” and “Butterfly Gardening,” the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation,; USDA.

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An Excellent, Timeless Book

Monday, July 8, 2013

City Bees, Country Bees: Part 2

How Cities Can Offer Better Habitat than Rural Areas 
Honeybees are not the only ones in trouble--bumblebees are too. This is the second of a two part series that discusses how urban areas might be bumblebees’ and other native bees’ best chance for survival. Part one is here.  

In City and Country
Leafcutter Bee
The morning of June 19th, before leaving for a retreat, I went out in my urban, Chicago-area backyard to see how the bees were doing. I do this nearly every day, spring through fall, several times a day if I’m at home and working on gardening chores. Warm, with a light breeze, the sun lighting up the flowering plants--it was perfect pollinator weather. Sure enough, back towards the alley, in an area perhaps 10’x20’, a couple of bumblebees were assembled at the spiderwort, honeybees and carpenter bees browsed the nepeta, and at least two other species cruised the coreopsis and the raspberries. I also saw a leafcutter bee and quite a few minute creatures resting on leaves, their golden or green metallic abdomens gleaming, that could be bee or wasp or flower fly. There were also assorted hover flies, wasps and a few butterflies. In my yard, this is completely normal, and what I would expect to see in those conditions.

Later that afternoon a friend and I strolled the retreat property in Putnam County, scouting for bees. Owned and maintained by Illinois Quakers, the twelve acres of grass and mostly native trees such as black walnuts, oaks, ash and maples also include a couple of old field/quasi-prairie areas and remnant hedgerows anchored by some gnarly old osage orange trees. The meetinghouse sits on a slight rise, slight enough that only people from these parts would probably even notice, particularly when the corn is up. Because of extreme spring rains, the corn and soy were not well-grown. You could sit at a picnic table under a maple just southwest of the meetinghouse and look south, southeast and southwest all the way to the horizon. The effect is one of sitting on an island surrounded by a sea of corn and soy, with here and there a distant cluster of farm buildings, metal roofs glimmering in the sun, embraced by their own clusters of trees. The sky, often cluttered with piled-high cumulus clouds, is a dominant element in the composition. To my Midwestern eyes it is restful to be able to see so far, and the contours of the land contain a spare beauty. Visitors from other parts of the world or the U.S., however, find this landscape surprising or even shocking: surprisingly green, open, and flat; shockingly large and uniform.

So, as I said, my friend and I, that first afternoon, patrolled the grounds. We found exactly two bees in a small patch of clover. They looked like some kind of solitary native species but were unfamiliar to me.

At various times during the next four days I would sit at that table, contemplating the landscape and considering this triumph of the industrial farming system that supplies corn and soy to the entire world. Aldo Leopold, in his mid-twentieth century essay “Illinois Bus Ride,” accurately pegs the monotone Illinois landscape and inhabitants’ lack of knowledge regarding the native prairie; the clean-farming practices he describes have only become more predominant since then. I sat with the constant awareness that in those vast fields every single plant as far as the eye could see had doubtless been treated with, among other dangerous chemical products, fungicides and neonicotinoids, and so, virtually every plant in that landscape was toxic to bees. There are vanishingly few refuges.

The common saying goes that every third bite of food is enabled by bees. But what does that really mean? Simply that bees and other pollinators are crucial to the conversion of the sun’s energy into food we can eat. A landscape without pollinators may as well be a dead landscape. It is like a machine missing certain crucial gears that allow it to function: complexity is radically diminished, energy flows depleted, life processes interrupted, and spacial-temporal-energy-matter relationships crucial to ecosystem functioning distorted. A lack of pollinators tears holes in the web of physical and biological relationships that enable the sun’s energy to be converted into matter, i.e. the plant based biological systems that simultaneously embody and power life on earth. The landscape I was viewing was imbued with an ineluctably tragic quality. Sure enough, though during my visit I saw other insect life--a few butterflies, various moths, beetles, flies, mosquitoes and gnats, a dragonfly-- I never saw another bee. When I got back home, I immediately went out in the backyard. Bees galore.

These were not-one-time-only experiences or comparisons. I go to that place regularly and am just as regularly struck by the differences between the biodiversity there and in Chicago. This is not to say more biodiverse areas don’t exist in and around Putnam County. A hobby beekeeper of my acquaintance maintains a combination bee meadow/natural area on 30 acres a few miles from from the meetinghouse; Matthiesson and Starved Rock State Parks are fairly close by; the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, a restored area along the Illinois River, lies ten miles away. Yet these are small in comparison with the vast areas of monocropping that prevail there and throughout the state--and the country--an area so large that in seasonal time lapse satellite photos you can see how thousands of square miles of bare brown fields become green in spring and summer. When driving back to Chicago (there is no other way to travel between the two), the experience, paradoxically, is that as the concrete increases, so does biodiversity, so that one has a sense of moving from barrenness into lushness.

 Biodiverse habitat makes a huge difference for bees and native bees seem to be in trouble--or not--depending on where they live. Two studies bear this out. In the first, native bee populations (bumble bees were not included in this study) were counted Carlinville, Illinois. This study compared species counts done in the late 19th century and the 1970’s with the last couple of years. In the 1970’s, 82% of species remained. Since the ‘70’s, the number of species has declined by half. A primary reason seems to have been loss of habitat. Meanwhile, two currently ongoing studies of bees in various habitats (including green roofs) in the Chicago area show that in comparison with a count in the 1930’s, numbers of species (approximately 150) have remained stable, though there is some difference in species between then and now.

What Cities Have: Neglected Acreage and Contiguous Back and Front Yards
A Chicago Neighborhood
My personal experience and these kinds of observations and studies lead me believe that, in North America, at least, cities hold untapped potential as pollinator reserves. Most farmers continue to plow up ever more habitat, remove land from conservation reserve programs and use neonics and other pesticides with abandon. It seems clear that until these farming practices change, it will be up to urbanites, whether in cities, towns or those suburbs that have abandoned the atavistic, pristine-lawn aesthetic, to see to it that our bees survive. With regard to honeybees this situation has been recognized for some years, as the proliferation of urban beekeeping has demonstrated. It is equally important for our native bees. Metro areas really are bees’ last best hope.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

City Bees, Country Bees

Honeybees are not the only ones in trouble--bumblebees are too. This is the first of a two part series that will discuss how urban areas might be bumblebees’ best chance for survival. 


Part 1: A Little about Bumblebees and Neonicotinoid Insecticides

Life as a Bumble Bee 
Bombus ssp. on wild geranium
Put aside being human for a moment. Imagine you are another creature--no, not one of those charismatic ones--not dolphin, whale, bear, or wolf, nor even soaring eagle. Take it down a notch or a hundred and imagine you are a bee: not the glamorous, attention-getting honeybee, star of books, articles and films, either, but a wild bumblebee, Bombus impatiens, for example, common in the Midwest. Don’t worry about getting used to seeing in the ultraviolet range, or having six legs, or suddenly being able to fly, or able to pollinate flowers simply by making a buzzing sound. This is conceptual.

So you are a young queen. It’s early spring and some combination of time, temperature and length of day has caused you to awaken from your winter hibernation, or diapause. You pull yourself out of bed--the hibernaculum you dug for yourself last fall after you had left your birth nest and mated--scramble out from under the dry leaves that cover the area, and survey the landscape. If you are lucky, you’ve emerged in an area where there are plenty of spring-blooming flowers. You will, assuming you evade hungry predators and don’t succumb to mites or disease, live a happy, if short, bee life. You’ll fly for several weeks feeding on pollen and looking for a good nesting area, which might be at ground level or just below--perhaps under a tussock of prairie dropseed grass, or in an old mouse nest. Then you’ll settle in, lay eggs, and provide pollen for and raise your first group of daughters. Subsequently, while you retire to lay more eggs, they’ll take over foraging and raising young to keep the nest going, ensuring the survival of the next year’s population. Along the way, countless plants will be pollinated, allowing fruits and vegetables to grow and ripen. As a result of your efforts, and those of the thousands of other bee and pollinator species, life on earth will continue.