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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.