The month that has just ended is turning out to be crucial for the plant world, with the hungry bees barely emerging from their long winter siesta. Perhaps also the time when grasses and weeds come to life, unfortunately this is when most homeowners start mowing their lawns. The resulting scarcity of early wildflowers adds an unnecessary burden to the chances of survival of the insects we rely on to pollinate our food supply. If you have a yard or garden that needs tending, there are simple steps you can take that will go a long way in 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 during this critical pollinator season. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation based in Portland, Oregon (www.xerces.org), named after a blue butterfly that became extinct in the 1940s due to development in the San Francisco Bay Area, brought the No Mow May concept to the United States through its Bee City USA initiative (https://beecityusa.org). The campaign quickly spread across the Midwest, and the Mid-Hudson is also starting to jump on the bandwagon: the city of New Paltz endorsed No Mow May 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 this noise around the lawns? In case you missed it, bees and other essential pollinator species are in trouble. Colony Collapse Syndrome (CCD) became big news in the first two decades of this millennium, appearing in the United States in 2006 and then spreading rapidly around the world. Entire hives of bees, on which the pollination of around three-quarters of our global food supply depends, have begun dropping dead en masse. About a third of the domesticated bee population in this country alone perished each year for the next five years.
Entomologists have worked hard to identify the cause of the syndrome and have compiled a long list of possible factors. Hives can be infested with 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 VII6; pesticides and fungicides; stress of moving hives from place to place; and malnutrition caused by the practice of feeding commercial bees pollen from monoculture sources or high fructose corn syrup. Several studies suggest that the immune systems of bee populations are suppressed by increased levels of pesticides in the agricultural environment, leaving bees more susceptible to pathogens, harmful fungi and parasites. Dissections of dead bees from collapsed colonies typically show starvation-like digestive tract abnormalities, even when fed.
In 2015, a group of biologists from the University of Sussex published a report on their analysis of 170 global studies on CCD and stressors for bees, including pathogens, agrochemicals and the decline of biodiversity. They concluded that “the combined stress of pests, pesticides and lack of flowers” was the recipe for death. “Flower abundance and diversity have declined, bees are chronically exposed to cocktails of agrochemicals and they are simultaneously exposed to new parasites accidentally spread by humans. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems in the future,” the report said.
While CCD studies have focused almost entirely on honeybee colonies, the 2015 report also noted alarming trends in the global populations of bumblebees and other wild bees, including the extinction of many species. Habitat loss appears to be a critical factor here, both in terms of food sources and nesting sites. The report identified “flowering meadows” as an optimal territory for bees: the type of land that is irresistible for real estate developers. It’s also a fair description of a lawn that has grown long enough for the native wildflowers to bloom. So yes, there is something you can do about it – and it’s not rocket science.
In addition to not mowing your lawn during the month of May, you have many options for making your garden a feast for bees, butterflies and other pollinator species. And the internet is full of resources to find out what they are. Some, like the aforementioned Xerces Society and Bee City sites, 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 challenged to establish a million or more pollen forage locations in the United States, and has a fabulous resource page specifically for educators.
After reviewing them, you will have a good understanding of some basic principles that apply wherever you live: bee-friendly alternatives to using chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides in your garden, especially nicotinoids, for example. . Eliminating invasive and non-native species is a key first step. All the evidence gathered among pollinator gardeners seems to point to the importance of planting bee-feeding flowers in large clumps and clusters of the same species, rather than specimen plants of a wide variety of flowers. So if you have room for a perennial border, you’ll want to take that into account when planning the layout.
You’ll also want to focus on what works best in our regional biosphere: the plants that bees love will also be easy to care for in the local Hudson Valley/Catskills terrains, soils, climate and microclimates. Lists of plants native to the northeast that support bee health can be found on most of the websites cited in this article, but we particularly like the one published by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_027028.pdf) which shows a large photograph of each of the recommended plants in bloom, making it easy to visualize and design your beds and borders for color and shape harmony. Flowering timing should be another consideration, so your local bees can snack from the time they emerge from hibernation until they are ready to overwinter again.
An outstanding resource is Pollinator Pathways (www.pollinator-pathway.org), a Connecticut-based organization that takes the lead in recruiting municipalities — especially in the Northeast — to commit to promoting the creation of pollinator garden corridors. Committed communities not only encourage residents and businesses to plant bee-friendly flower blocks, 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 a final step in road reconstruction.
A long list of Hudson Valley communities have signed on to the Pollinator Pathway campaign. In Ulster County, the programs of the towns of Esopus, Gardiner, Lloyd, New Paltz, Rosendale and Ulster are all coordinated under the auspices of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust. His webpage at https://wallkillvalleylt.org/pp is a great source of hyper-local tips and resources, from a “Getting Started” introduction to recommended plant lists to links to nearby seed sources.
The Town of Woodstock has its own chapter, run by the organization Woodstock Transition, which offers talks from pollinator gardening experts to interested community groups, in addition to numerous resources on its website (https://woodstocknypollinatorpathway.org). There’s even a map of properties in and around Woodstock whose stewards are committed to planting and maintaining Pollinator Pathways. You can download and print a sign to display in your garden if you want to brag about it to your neighbours, or recruit them!
Pollinator gardens have also been created on the campuses of SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Ulster. The Kingston Land Trust is in the process of joining Pollinator Pathway and is currently working with Kingston-based “forward-thinking” 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 would be remiss not to mention the ever-reliable Ulster County Cornell Cooperative Extension, whose Pollinator Support webpage (http://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/gardening/pollinator-support) is dense with links to a plethora of information sources on every conceivable aspect of pollinator gardening, right down to how to make a golf course bee-friendly. If you want to delve into ways to create habitat and forage for declining wild native bee species, and not just bees, this is a fertile place to look. A valuable resource, Cornell’s publication, Creating a Pollinator Garden for Specialist Bees, can be found at https://cornell.app.box.com/s/vd5plphukjtjrfpk485q62994cx11akm.
Coming on June 18 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Xeriscape Garden on the SUNY Ulster campus will host a free Master Pollinator Gardener Party. To learn more about the event, visit http://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/events/2022/06/18/-learning-in-the-garden-series. And those same master gardeners have organized with the New York State Bridge Authority a flashy local tribute to the 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. into 27,000 orange and yellow lights in honor of pollinators.