When I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, the ‘Louisville Lip’, then still known as Cassius Clay, and later Mohammed Ali, would come into my dad’s drug store after training down the street for the Golden gloves for an ice-cream cone and some change to take the bus home. Then, while eating the cone, he would playfully hold me off with his other hand.
Upon hearing of his recent death, I thought of his famous saying, to “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Today, those words hold new meaning for me and many gardeners.
Nearly 80 percent of all flowering plant species - one third of the world’s food crops - need pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, and insects to produce fruits and seeds. But the world is seeing a decline in pollinator populations, and without them agricultural biodiversity will suffer.
Land-use changes, climate change, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to support agricultural monoculture are just some of the things that disrupt pollinator/plant interactions like Monarch butterflies and milkweed. But there are some things we can do to help, right in our own yards and gardens.
First, pollinators are best adapted to feed on native species. Non-native plants often don’t have enough nectar or pollen. As an added bonus, native plants typically require less water, so they’re easier to maintain.
A diverse selection of species with different flowering times is best, so we have blooms throughout the growing season, rather than all at once; in large patches so pollinators can forage more efficiently.
Many native bees nest underground so it’s helpful to leave stumps, rotting logs, and fallen organic material around; use weed cloth or heavy mulch sparingly; and provide piles of branches where pollinators can attach to chrysalises or cocoons.
Since 2006, beekeepers across the country have experienced something called “colony collapse disorder” caused in large part by neonicotinoids - a nerve-agent class of pesticides – that German chemical giant Bayer uses to coat corn and soybean seeds to kill pests. The trouble is they kill bees too, and if we lose our bees, we’ll lose our honey. But it would sting even more to lose pollinators that are essential to our ecosystems.
The new word for the loss of bee colonies is bee-pocalyse, because without the buzzing of the bees and the loss of our native pollinators, we’ll be moving towards a second catastrophic “Silent Spring.”