Rachel Retica: Our gardens can save our bees

WILLIAMSTOWN — We don't know when the bees began to disappear, but people started to notice around 2010, when the sudden losses of whole colonies gripped the country in horror. National cries for help echoed throughout the media, raising a hue and cry that has since slipped just out of view, fading as the fury around the first shock subsided. It's possible, too, that the size of the problem made it hard to think about, hard to conceive of addressing in its entirety — but it's a problem that can be taken up powerfully on a local scale.

Local efforts, in fact, are beginning to stir in the Berkshires, appearing in pollinator resolutions passed by Great Barrington, Williamstown, North Adams, and Lanesborough. This is a moment to look out on the piece of the Berkshires outside your front windows.

Caring for a lawn or garden means being in charge of a small habitat, one bustling with the daily efforts, triumphs, and failures of its little creatures. Pollinators are an incredibly powerful piece of these whirring ecosystems. They are constantly eating, pollinating, and being eaten, making themselves indispensable to the plants, birds, and mammals that live alongside them.

We rely on them, too. Pollinators are responsible for the fruits and seeds of 75 percent of the crops grown for human diets. Many of these are wild pollinators, distinct from the domesticated honeybees that might first come to mind. These wild bees, butterflies, and moths are also disappearing, largely due to development that has fragmented and degraded their local habitats. In New England, huge swathes of land have been paved over, built up, mowed, landscaped, and farmed, obscuring the meadows and native wildflowers that our pollinators cannot do without.

Native plants are critical

Pollinators evolved in time with flowering plants, developing their pollination services to attend to the specific structures of the adjacent greenery. This close-knit relationship between plant and pollinator points to the first pillar of supporting a pollinator-friendly habitat: use native plants.

The benefits of planting North American regulars are striking. Native plants form habitats designed, over thousands and thousands of years, for local insects. Individual examples can illustrate how extreme the difference can be — for instance, the Eurasian version of a common reed, which supports over 170 species of insects in Europe, can provide for only five in North America.

Garden fashions, however, have long been fascinated by exotic plantings. This aesthetic has remained dominant well into an era in which we are learning to support local growth, the odd remnant of a period that we are leaving behind. Gardens are allowed to be ornamental when they should be integrated in and essential to this landscape. Our gardens can become part of a linked, patchwork habitat to cut across developed land.

Creating a habitat can come with inaction, as well, which forms the second pillar of pollinator-friendly land use: mow less and later. A study performed in Springfield showed that allowing grasses to grow between three and four inches had huge benefits for their local bee populations. Let the dandelions and clover come in as well — these are hugely useful little plants, more difficult to get rid of than to keep for use by native bees.

In an area that you've devoted to meadow, mowing later in the season can have staggering effects. If you mow the late-blooming goldenrods just as they begin to bud in July, they will not have the energy to mount a comeback that same year and flower in the fall. Many pollinators depend on this late season nutrition to overwinter. They need little places to nest, as well — sandy areas, piles of dead leaves, a log — all of which might look like moments of neglect on a tidy lawn. We are beginning to understand them, however, as moments of care, reconstructing the habitat that has been uprooted chasing an unnatural aesthetic.

This is a movement that belongs in our gardens, in the plantings around stores and schools, and on town-owned land. Finding the beauty and utility of native plants will mean wildflowers in downtown areas and meadows in our parks. The Berkshire hills need a commitment to re-wilding. We can reanimate this landscape in all of its natural height and color, which begins and ends with a commitment to our pollinators.

A student at Williams College, Rachel Retica is interning this summer with Bee Friendly Williamstown.


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