Silent summer

A green frog rests within the petals of Hemerocallis ‘North Wind Dancer’.

As soon as the sun rises, I wander the paths of my garden. Gravel crunches under my sandles. Small green frogs and toads jump above and below plants while earthworms crawl beneath the soil. Winged insects feast upon nectar, pollen and even each other. Creatures climb over vegetables and lie beneath tomatoes as tall as skyscrapers from their viewpoint. Birds swoop from their perches intent on feeding their young. Once the dawn chorus finishes, my shiny, dark friends, the crows, discuss me and other possible dangers as they fly from tree to tree.

It is a song almost as old as time itself, but some notes are missing. The familiar hum of my favorite creature is merely a whisper on the wind. The bumblebees, my dearest, roly-poly companions, are all but absent this year. I don’t find them sleeping in the shelter of an early-morning bloom or lumbering from flower to flower, their legs packed with golden pollen. They are absent, and this troubles me more than you’ll ever know. Poor Bill has heard my lament every night at dinner.

Echinacea visited by a bumblebee. I’ve only seen two bumbles this year.

The friendly yellow and black bumblebees of children’s literature are actually many different species. In Oklahoma, we have Bombus nevadaensis auricomus–say that three times—plus, B. bimaculatus. We also see the familiar Xylocopa virginica (L.) or carpenter bee which is not a true bumble, but looks like one. North America is home to many types of bumblebees, but some, like Franklin’s Bumblebee, are becoming critically endangered Much has been written about Colony Collapse Disorder for honeybees as reported in The New Yorker and other publications, but only now, we’re realizing bumblebees are facing nearly the same thing.

European honeybee on the most beautiful poppy, ‘Blue Pearl’ (not yet introduced) in Christopher Mello’s, Asheville, NC, garden.

Other pollinators may also be on the decline. It’s easier to tell if bumbles are missing than say, Osmia lignaria, the orchard mason bee, or small sweat bees like the one on the smooth aster below.

From the silence in my own garden, I suspect all pollinators are diminishing, and it’s been a sudden drop. Last summer, my ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas were covered in insects, but this year, hardly any came to dine.

I don’t know if my bumbles are missing due to climate change, or if someone nearby used neonicotinoid pesticides on their crops or gardens. Neonicotinoids are thought to interfere with a bee’s ability to navigate. I live in a hilly and rocky area of Oklahoma where there isn’t much farming so thus far, I’ve been lucky. However, it’s been noted that homeowners are guilty of using higher amounts of these pesticides than agriculture. I’ve tried to give bees and other insects a haven by creating a place where they could do their thing without trouble. Now, I feel like that may not be enough.

Try to imagine me, my arms waving above my head . . . I’m like the Chicken Little of Oklahoma’s gardening world. In my state, where people routinely grab the chemical solution first, it’s not easy being the one saying the sky is falling from chemical overload and overuse. However, I can’t stop. The sky may indeed be falling for our pollinators with the bees our first known casualties. What other pollinators are next? Have you thought about our birds and fish? Many eat insects.

Green metallic sweat bee on Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird’ aster

What can we do?

    • Plant more natives and other high-nectar flowers to give pollinators something to eat.
    • Stop grabbing the spray bottle for every little thing. My roses have blackspot. So what. If the Queen of England can tolerate blackspot, so can I. Granted they don’t look great during summer, but they blend into the background. It’s too hot for them to bloom in summer anyway.
    • At the top of the list, stop using pesticides. If you see aphids, give them a good spray of water and watch them drown. Pick bugs off of vegetables and ornamentals before sprinkling Sevin Dust. Drop bad bugs into a coffee can of soapy water, beer or kerosene like my grandmother once did. Believe me, it’s fun to watch squash bugs die a horrible soapy death.
    • For bug control, if you live in the country, get Guinea fowl, geese or ducks. They love to eat bugs. Chickens do too. However, I have this dog that will kill anything–other than people–that enters her yard, so I keep my chickens in a covered run where they are safe.
    • Try releasing natural predators, but be sure the predator eats your particular bug and read up on how to keep those predators in your garden long enough to lay eggs.

      Although this ladybug lion looks terrifying, it is one of your best friends in the garden. Immature ladybugs eat many more aphids than adults.
    • Know your bugs. Learn to identify immature insects like ladybug lions. Some bugs look horrible and mean, but they aren’t. Others like blister beetles can cause you problems if you squish them with your bare fingers. If you’re worried, wear gloves. Insects are a natural part of the garden, and the longer I grow things, the more interested I am in the frogs, toads, lizards, bees, lady beetles, praying mantises and other creatures that call my garden home. I find their activity to be as important as the next flower that blooms.
    • Join the Xerces Society. They are getting the word out about invertebrates, and they have a special campaign for bumblebees. I joined last week and received their publication, Wings in the mail. It’s great.
    • Here are some other things you can do to help our small yellow and black friends along with other pollinators.

I, for one, don’t want another silent summer so let’s make our gardens welcome mats for bumblebees and other creatures. We may be their only refuge in a dangerous world.

Two of the plants featured in this post are natives and wildflowers: Echinacea and the smooth aster. Check out Gail’s post on Wildflower Wednesday for more.

Feel free to click on photos to make them larger.

 

39 Replies to “Silent summer”

  1. Interesting food for thought. I had noticed just this summer that my caryopteris bushes have not had a SINGLE bumble bee. .and are lacking much of the other normal winged visitors. Those four bushes are normally LOADED with bees, butterflies, and various other creatures.This summer there a few small insects, but none of the bees. .I was wondering if they had succombed to something. I haven’t used pesticides in several years. .and live in a rural area, surrounded by pasture, not farmground. I hope that the population recovers and returns. .I noticed that someone else mentioned not having dragonflies either, I have had several species of those, but not to the extent of years past either. .I hope that, like the hot weather, is not the new norm!!

  2. Wonderful post. We’re in transition at the moment but still planning for a fall garden and trying to select plants that will attract the bees. We’re also going to practice companion planting to help control pests. We use very little, if any chemicals at all. My roses aren’t very pretty too look at right now either. If we need any help we use it as a last resort and use something “organic” like a pyrethrin spray.

  3. So thought-provoking, Dee. It’s just scary to think of losing more species of bees. I still have lots of them here – the dogs are constantly watching and chasing them (they aren’t too bright) as they climb in and out of our esperanza and everything else. Almost every plant in my garden is a favorite of the bees, butterflies and birds. I can’t imagine what will happen if we lose our pollinators.

  4. Hi Dee, here in OKC my Russian Sage which should be covered in honey bees, bumbles even wasps has barely seen any action. I have a few caterpillars on the herbs and have noted only two humming birds which are usually quite happy in the back with 2 ponds and multi gardens to visit. There has not been one dragon fly in the back (that I have seen as of yet), but I did make a visit to a friend in Piedmont (to the west of me) and they had all sorts of visitors.

    The happy side is the toads and frogs which have been somewhat vacant from our yards over the last few years as well as the lightening bugs are back. And I do not use pesticides and neither do my direct neighbors.

  5. I wonder if what you’re experiencing is just a local anomaly. I have tons of bees here. My garden is 100% organic and I use zero pesticides. But I’m surrounded by people who blast everything in sight so that the bare yard they never go into is bug-free. Last summer I noticed an absence of large butterflies only to have them show up in mid-July. There’s still a lot of time for them to appear. Please don’t lose faith.

  6. Yes Dee, we are having the same issue here. Your suggestions are great and they do work. I also never spray poisons for any bugs. Mother nature works it all out. My garden always looks healthy and I do not care if there are bugs eating the leaves of my plants. I have over a dozen natives and they do bring back the bees. Great post.

  7. That is so sad! Such a good and heartfelt post about the bees. I hope no one used chemicals and perhaps they are just taking their time showing up at your place. On a good note I enjoyed the walk with you and crows and other critters!

  8. Hi Dee,
    I’m sorry you aren’t seeing many bees. I have seen the normal amount here so far. I don’t think the neighbors here use as many chemicals as others do. Still, if you listened to the radio, you’d get the feeling every insect needed to be sprayed with a chemical. Come on, people!

  9. An excellent post, Dee, and one that everyone should read. I’ve only recently heard about the decline in bumblebees, and it worries me, too. They still seem pretty plentiful in my garden, but who knows if that will continue to be true. Interestingly, as I read your lovely description of the sights and sounds of your early morning garden, I thought of my early morning walk outside. We have so many barn swallows, and each morning and evening I watch them as they swoop down all over the yard, picking insects for their meals. Without insects, they would no doubt be gone, too. Everyone needs to realize the consequences of reaching for that pesticide bottle–or hiring the lawn-care people!–not just the immediate results, but the long-term chain reaction as well.

  10. Very beautiful, poignant, and important post, Dee. So sorry the bumbles, and other pollinators are missing from your garden.

    We seem to still have a lot of pollinators, including bumbles, here. The welcome mat is out for them, and I know I’d miss them terribly if they were to disappear.

    I’ll add another vote for leaves as mulch. Sometimes the hubs bags the leaves to make mowing easier in the fall. Those bags don’t last five minutes along the side of the house. As he fills them, I empty them in the beds. There’s also an area where I pile them behind some bushes. A lot of them get moved out of there the following year to replenish areas that need more leaves. They’re great in veggie beds too. I rarely have weeds in our veggie beds, and water a lot less often than I’d need to without that nice, thick leaf mulch. I even use the leaves to line our swale. Our dog walks through the swale just about every day, and with a nice thick lining of fallen leaves, his feet don’t get muddy.

  11. Hi, Dee, Yes, indeed, take heart from California. My garden is just loaded with bumblebees, honeybees, yellow jackets and variations of all the above. I love them like you do, so I’m very pleased. They adore the abundance of lavender, the two huge butterfly bushes out back, the many roses, the pink penstemon, the purple oregano (white not opened yet) and the borage, which is everywhere back there. Lots to pick from. I’d be crushed if they didn’t show up. I’m hoping yours are just arriving a bit late. Thanks for extensive info. xoxo

  12. Beautiful blooms and good information!
    The frog in the lily is really fantastic!
    Happy gardening!
    Lea
    Lea’s Menagerie

  13. Dee I am sad to hear that the bumbles are absent. I would be devastated without them and so far I am lucky…but I know so many neighbors spray Round Up and use chemical lawn companies…Bravo for an excellent post and a call to do the right thing…we are surely next and our food supply diminished without the native bees.

  14. Hey Dee,
    Firstly, MMD kudos for making us smile in the midst of an important topic. Very nicely written and recapped. I feel guilty for having managed advertising for ag chem companies. Gotta put bread on the table. But I guess that makes me a compelling agent of change in this whole conversation. Don’t you think?
    Best, Patrick

  15. Dee,
    Your right people don’t want to hear the negatives about insecticides and fertilizers. One of our neighbors was so excited to see butterflies on her spiraea. A few weeks later I saw her husband spraying the whole yard with insecticide and asked what was the problem. Turns out there wasn’t one, but he was spraying everything “just in case” they had any bugs. Couldn’t seem to figure out that the butterflies they loved were being killed too. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at such a thought process(I was going to say ignorance, but that sounded rather harsh.)
    Sue

  16. GREAT post, Dee!! You are, as always, a woman after my own heart. We have guineas and free range chickens, and this year I am trying out the soapy water trick too, thanks for the encouragement. I also agree with allowing a little spot or wilt here and there in favor of using chemicals. Did you know we got our first bee hives this year? Huge learning curve for me, but I am so excited.

    Before I go, what lovely photos… I would not have noticed that green frog if you hadn’t captioned him! LOL Hope to see this amazing garden in 3-D next week!

    xoxo

    1. Yes Marie, please come. We can work out the details over the phone. Thank you for your sweet words. I may need to come and take bee photos at your house. Congratulations on the new venture. I love bees.

  17. Hi Dee! A fellow Okie here also chicken-litttling at the sky! We’ve created a tiny chemical free oasis here in northcentral Oklahoma, but our neighbors all around us want to live as if they’re in the middle of a manicured golf course. Not sure why they chose to move out of town into the country … but that’s a conversation for another day.

    It’s amazing to see the difference between our place full of “weeds” (native wildflowers) and their dead-looking forced water-wasted poisoned “green lawns” … we have butterflies, mason bees, one or two bumbles, birds, bunnies, dragonflies, wasps … and all other sorts of bugs I’ve never seen and still have yet to ID.

    Keep fighting the good fight! Maybe if more and more of us do our little part to create safe zones it’ll help in the long run.

    1. Hi OkieWells, I’m so glad to hear from another Oklahoman. Yes, I noticed when I added more high-nectar plants like natives to my garden, all of the pollinators, birds and other wildlife increased. If you plant it, they will come . . . right? Thanks so much for sharing and for taking care of the wildlife in your area one acre at a time.

  18. It’s heartbreaking Dee to walk our gardens and not see our Bumble friends. I’m so glad you’ve written about the direct link between their demise and pesticides. The more we share this information~regionally and nationally~the better chances our pollinators have for recovery. Btw, I did see several Bumbles on the agastache this morning. xogail

    1. Gail, it is heartbreaking. I’ve worked so hard to give them a safe place, and this year, there aren’t many here. I will keep watching for them though. Perhaps, I’ll see them on the perennial hibiscus.

  19. In 2010 and 2011, we both felt we were seeing fewer bees of all kinds in both the vegetable and ornamental gardens. This spring, I noticed a ton of bumbles on the early flowers, like chives, and both the crabapples and ninebarks were so full of bees when they were in bloom, that I had to stop working in those sections of the garden for a few days [I’m allergic]. I’m hoping for an increase in the veggies too, but we are a bit behind the midwest in the season, so we are just starting to get a lot of blossoms. We don’t use chemicals, but I know the farmers around us do, so that has a definite effect on us.

    1. Donalyn, I’m glad you have created a haven for your pollinators. They need a respite from everything else. I’m extremely concerned from what I’ve read about the neonicotinoid pesticides. They seem to be even more dangerous to bees because of their confusing qualities. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I wonder at it all.

  20. Dee, thank you for a wonderful post. I especially like your line, “If the Queen of England can tolerate blackspot, so can I.”

    I live not that far north of you, in south central Kansas, on 10 acres in the country. We’re working to restore prairie on our land, which consists primarily of badly overgrazed (and I’m sure heavily sprayed) pasture. The first few years we were here, I didn’t see many pollinators, but now in our 6th summer, I am seeing many, especially the small native bees. Now that I know what to look for (often small, perfectly round holes in bare soil), I also see signs of native solitary bee reproduction everywhere – and I’m careful not to disturb it if at all possible.

    Hopefully your bees are just experiencing a down year and will be back in force next year.

    1. Gaia, I’m so glad you’re seeing more native pollinators on your rehabilitated and restored land. I’ve gardened in this space without chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides for years, and I agree, you can tell a difference over time. With patience and care, you can restore a place and give pollinators a place to live and thrive. For the last five years, I’ve noticed more and more pollinators of all types in the garden, but this summer is different. I did see one bumblebee today on my perennial hibiscus. I hope he returns and brings his friends. Perhaps, it’s just the crazy weather, and all the pollinators are going elsewhere. Hope spring eternal, you know.

  21. Dee,
    I’ve only seen two bumble bees this year too and my garden is usually FILLED with them. For the past two years I have deliberately not sprayed any pesticides, insecticides or even herbicides because of the whole bee thing. And you can really see how my plants have diminished in health. It’s so disappointing to see such a lack of bees and butterflies in my garden after the way it has suffered as a result of my trying to protect them. Maybe it’s just the climate; we have had such a very screwy season so far with all the plants blooming like they have or in my case not blooming at all.

    1. Randy, over the years and several moves, I have converted several traditionally maintained (read chemically treated) yards to organic – and I find that it takes several years for the soil life and insect life to regain reasonable balance and numbers again. Keep feeding your soil with compost, leaf mulch, and so forth, avoiding chemical fertilizers as well, and keep the faith watching the insects. Expect extra damage the first couple years – predator insect populations take much longer to rebuild than leaf-eating populations – but the damage will minimize after the first several years IF you have the courage to avoid spraying. (And, boy, does it take courage, when your plants are looking lousy!)

      By taking your yard off chemical fertilizers, you will experience “leaner” plants, but the plants will also be much less susceptible to insect damage and to diseases.

      Good luck!!!

    2. Randy, it takes several years for the plants to get off the chemical bandwagon. When I switched to organic methods including no spraying, I noticed a decline in all my plants too. After a couple of seasons though, it was as if they were all on crack, and has to wean themselves from it. Here’s hoping you find more bees and other pollinators in your garden, and that your garden soon recovers from chemical dependence. It takes a lot of time and patience, but I promise, it does pay off. Hang in there.

      1. I stopped using fertilizer and spread composted manure on my grass a few years ago and the transformation was incredible. Maybe I should sprinkle it in my beds as well. I suppose it will eventually wash thru the mulch?

        1. I would definitely plan on using compost in your garden beds. Depending on the type of mulch you use, I’d either wait until you next freshen the mulch and put down compost first, then mulch on top, or I would rake the mulch back and put down the compost, then put the mulch back on top.

          My favorite mulch (for this area, at least) – which has the advantage of being basically free – is chopped leaves. We “leaf rustle”, picking up bags of leaves from the curbside that people have put out for the trash, then chop it up with a lawnmower and use it to mulch, especially on perennial beds. It decomposes within a season and feeds the soil, plus being easy to plant into and work around.

        2. Yes, take the mulch and pull it back placing the manure beneath it. I also use shredded leaves for mulch. We have a lot of oak trees, and when the leaves fall, we place them in large piles. They do attract lots of good bacteria and earthworms. I also use Back to Nature which is simply composted cottonseed hulls and manure. If it isn’t too hot, manure is great stuff for a garden. I let our chicken manure age for a year before I use it on the gardens. Thanks for commenting again Randy and good luck.~~Dee

  22. Thank you for writing about this important subject. I’ve noticed the decline in all kinds of bees in my garden for several years now.

Comments are closed.