In City and Country
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.
A Country Landscape Toxic to Pollinators
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. (Please see 8/10/14 update below.)
What Cities Have: Neglected Acreage and Contiguous Back and Front Yards
|A Chicago Neighborhood|
|Sweet White Clover in Bloom|
Another major advantage of cities and suburbs is that homeowners’ yards are not economic production areas, are not enmeshed in the grim, determinist logic of industrialism. In a way, it is amazing that so many houses in the U.S. have a bit of land attached to them for no other purpose than our enjoyment of same, for leisure, recreation and outdoor life during the summer. We are free to do what we like with them. (Other urban bee habitats are outside the economic edifice by default. Bees could be seen as a little like old-time outlaws and gardening for bees seen as a somewhat subversive act.)
One thing humans like to do is plant flowering trees and shrubs and create flower gardens, which seems only natural, considering that flowers are among the most seductive things on earth, for humans as well as pollinators. We are real suckers for beauty, at which flowers excel. Is this partly because flowers provide a crucial link that keeps the whole enterprise going? By gardening, we provide habitat for pollinators, with whom we and the flowers have co-evolved, on whom we and the flowers depend. So, through our love of beauty we are programmed to help these creatures so much smaller than we are. You could say we have a moral and practical obligation to do so. In short, a garden or miles of small gardens with lots of flowers blooming from early spring through fall is not a luxury, it is a necessity of life.
A Final Rant Plus a Call to Action
I realize that in many places, at present, what I am discussing remains in the realm of the hypothetical, a potential on which to build. There are deep cultural biases to overcome that reflect a century’s worth of propagandizing and intensive marketing by those with a vested interest in selling lawns, hybridized non-native plants, and their accoutrements, including toxic chemicals. It is a symbol of our culture’s apparent death wish that we create landscapes where pollinators either are not invited or are actively shunned. Many Americans expect our flower gardens to be insect-free; gardens which attract birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife are considered, oddly, a special category whereas until the chemical revolution of the mid-twentieth century they were just ordinary gardens.
|Neat and Tidy|
|Mostly Native Plants|
We city-dwellers should capitalize on a good thing, should play to our strengths. What I would like to see is yards, blocks and neighborhoods where people choose to make at least part of their property into pollinator-friendly habitat. Every neighborhood should have (and probably already does have) a resident expert or several--folks with good ecological understanding who could help others learn how to garden in a way that is ecologically beneficial, as all gardening should be. Even though so many people have access to land (and even container gardens count as land), many, understandably, don’t have a deep knowledge of how to garden in an ecological fashion, or along the lines of reconciliation ecology. This could be a topic at block parties, community garden events, neighborhood association meetings and transition gatherings. A neighbor and I will be speaking and passing out plant lists at our block party later this month.
Much education--and action--is needed. City dwellers unite! Go forth and plant flowers!
Update 8/10/14: As I have done more research I've found that estimates of species in Chicago area vary wildly: 68 species collected in one recent study; 300 according to Chicago Wilderness; 500 according to the Chicago Botanic Garden; 2,000 according to a reputable garden journalist.
References: Landscape photos were taken within two miles of my house. Aerial image: B. Shore. Leafcutter bee photo courtesy Heather Holm, Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants. The effects of sub-lethal amounts of pesticides on bumble bees can be found here at Nature, while the Carlinville study (paywall) is at Science. In addition, a shoutout goes to the entomologists who spend their lives studying bees. They and their students have not only furthered the scientific understanding of native bees, but in many cases have done a great deal to educate the public. Our green earth from space can be seen here. The Guardian is a better source for information about bumblebees and neonicotinoids than many American publications, with the exception of Mother Jones where Tom Philpott is on the case. General coverage has increased as such disasters as the recent one in Oregon continue to add up.
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
A Day in the Country
Strengthening the Biotic Community
Chicago Gardens: The Early History