The month that has just come to an end turns out to be a crucial one for the plant world, with hungry bees just emerging from their long winter’s nap. May being also the time when grasses and weeds spring to life, it’s unfortunately the point at which most homeowners begin mowing their lawns. The resulting scarcity of early wildflowers adds an unneeded burden to the survival chances of the insects we rely on to pollinate our food supply. If you have a yard or garden to maintain, there are simple steps you can take that will go a long way toward helping our friends the bees survive and thrive.
In 2019, a botanical charity in the UK launched a campaign called No Mow May to persuade people to let their lawns grow out during this critical season for pollinators. The Portland, Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (www.xerces.org), named for a blue butterfly that went extinct in the 1940s due to development in the San Francisco Bay area, brought the No Mow May concept to the US via its Bee City USA initiative (https://beecityusa.org). The campaign quickly caught on in the Midwest, and the mid-Hudson is beginning to get on the bandwagon as well: The Town of New Paltz endorsed No Mow May back in April (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2022/04/10/new-paltz-resolution-supports-no-mow-may). Other municipalities in our region are sure to follow suit.
Why all the fuss about lawns? In case you missed it, honeybees and other essential pollinator species are in trouble. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) became big news during the first two decades of this millennium, emerging in the US in 2006 and subsequently spreading rapidly around the world. Whole hives of honeybees, on which the pollination of about three-quarters of our global food supply depends, began to drop dead en masse. About a third of the domesticated bee population in this country alone perished annually over the next five years.
Entomologists scrambled to identify the cause of the syndrome and came up with quite a laundry list of possible factors. Beehives can be infested by a destructive mite called Varroa and a fungus called Nosema ceranae. Other suggested culprits include a variety of pathogens, including a newly identified DNA virus known as IIV6; pesticides and fungicides; stress from moving hives from place to place; and malnutrition caused by the practice of feeding commercial honeybees pollen from monocultural sources or high-fructose corn syrup. Several studies suggest that the immune systems of bee populations are being suppressed by increasing levels of pesticides in the agricultural environment, leaving the bees more susceptible to pathogens, harmful fungi and parasites. Dissections of dead bees from collapsed colonies typically show abnormalities in the digestive tract suggestive of starvation, even when they’re being fed.
In 2015, a group of biologists from the University of Sussex released a report on their analysis of 170 worldwide studies on CCD and stressors for bees, including pathogens, agrochemicals and declining biodiversity. They concluded that “combined stress from parasites, pesticides and lack of flowers” has been the fatal recipe. “The abundance and diversity of flowers has declined, bees are chronically exposed to cocktails of agrochemicals and they are simultaneously exposed to novel parasites accidentally spread by humans. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems in the future,” the report stated.
While studies of CCD have focused almost entirely on domesticated honeybee colonies, the 2015 report also noted alarming trends in world populations of bumblebees and other wild bees, including the extinction of numerous species. Habitat loss seems to be a critical factor here, both in terms of food sources and nesting sites. The report identified “flower-rich grasslands” as optimal bee territory: the kind of land that is irresistible to housing developers. It’s also a fair description for a lawn that has been allowed to grow out long enough for native wildflowers to bloom. So yes, there is something that you can do about this – and it’s not rocket science.
Besides not mowing your lawn during the month of May, you have many options for making your yard a feast for bees, butterflies and other pollinator species. And the Internet is brimming with resources for finding out what they are. Some, such as the abovementioned Xerces Society and Bee City websites, the Pollinator Partnership (https://pollinator.org) and the National Pollinator Garden Network (http://millionpollinatorgardens.org), serve national constituencies and are great places to learn some of the basics. The latter has issued a challenge to establish one million or more pollen forage locations in the US, and has a fabulous resource page geared especially toward educators.
After you’ve had a look at these, you’ll have a good grasp of some fundamentals that hold true no matter where you live: bee-healthy alternatives to using chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides in your garden, especially nicotinoids, for example. Removing invasive and non-native species is a key early step. All the evidence being gathered among pollinator gardeners seems to be pointing to the importance of planting bee-nourishing flowers in large clumps and clusters of the same species, rather than specimen plants of a wide variety of flowers. So, if you’ve got space for a perennial border, you’ll want to take that into consideration as you plan the layout.
You’ll also want to home in on what works best in our regional biosphere: what plants that bees love will also be easy to maintain in the terrains, soils, climate and local microclimates of the Hudson Valley/Catskills. Lists of Northeast native plants that support bee health can be found on most of the websites cited in this article, but we especially like one published by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_027028.pdf) that shows a large photograph of each of the recommended plants in bloom, making it easy to visualize and design your beds and borders for harmony of color and form. Timing of bloom should be another consideration, so that your local bees can snack from the time they emerge from hibernation until they’re ready to overwinter again.
An outstanding resource is Pollinator Pathways (www.pollinator-pathway.org), a Connecticut-based organization that is taking the lead in recruiting municipalities – especially in the Northeast – to make a commitment to promoting the creation of pollinator garden corridors. Communities that take the “pledge” not only encourage individual residents and businesses to plant blocks of bee-friendly flowers, but also plant them on the grounds of schools and municipal buildings. Even highway departments can get involved by planting pollen-rich wildflowers along embankments as the final step of road reconstruction.
A long list of Hudson Valley communities have signed onto the Pollinator Pathway campaign. In Ulster County, programs in the Towns of Esopus, Gardiner, Lloyd, New Paltz, Rosendale and Ulster are all being coordinated under the auspices of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust. Its webpage at https://wallkillvalleylt.org/pp is a terrific source for hyperlocal advice and resources, from a “Getting Started” primer to recommended plant lists to links to nearby seed sources.
The Town of Woodstock has its own chapter, run by the Woodstock Transition organization, which offers talks by pollinator gardening experts to interested community groups, in addition to loads of resources on its website (https://woodstocknypollinatorpathway.org). There’s even a map of properties in and around Woodstock whose stewards have committed to plant and maintain Pollinator Pathways. You can download and print a sign to post in your garden if you want to brag to your neighbors about it, or recruit them!
Pollinator gardens have also been established on the campuses of SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Ulster. The Kingston Land Trust is in the process of joining up with Pollinator Pathway, and currently working with the “arts-forward” Kingston-based organization Hudson Valley Bee Habitat (www.hvbeehabitat.org) on a public sculpture project for pollinator education along the Kingston Greenline, to be called the Kingston Bee-Line (https://kingstonlandtrust.org/kingston-pollinators).
We’d be remiss not to mention the ever-reliable Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, whose Pollinator Support webpage (http://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/gardening/pollinator-support) is dense with links to a plethora of information sources on every imaginable aspect of pollinator gardening, right down to how to make a golf course bee-friendly. If you want to take a deeper dive into ways to create habitat and forage for declining wild native bee species, and not merely honeybees, this is a fertile place to look. One valuable resource, Cornell’s publication Creating a Pollinator Garden for Specialist Bees, can be found at https://cornell.app.box.com/s/vd5plphukjtjrfpk485q62994cx11akm.
Upcoming on June 18 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Xeriscape Garden on the SUNY Ulster campus will host a free Master Gardener Pollinator Party. To learn more about the event, visit http://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/events/2022/06/18/-learning-in-the-garden-series. And these same Master Gardeners have arranged with the New York State Bridge Authority for a flashy local tribute to Nation Pollinator Week: On Tuesday and Wednesday, June 21 and 22, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge between Poughkeepsie and Highland will be draped in 27,000 orange and yellow lights in honor of pollinators.