Science

Did Nature Heal? What’s Up with the Bees & How You Can Help

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I am now a homeowner, and let me tell you, it’s awesome (especially now that we are on year 2 of the pandemic with no real end in sight) but the process of buying a home was an incredibly stressful nightmare. One problem is that there are a lot of houses that have HOAs, or “homeowner associations,” which are formal collectives of homeowners originally established to keep black people out of their neighborhood but which these days are mostly concerned with making sure your lawn looks nice. And that was a real problem for me and my husband because there are two things we hate more than anything: someone telling us how to live our lives, and lawns.

Okay, I’m being a little hyperbolic but it’s true, I hate a lawn. Living in Northern California, we have some water issues, and lawns suck up a stupid amount of it. When we moved into our house, there was a beautiful green lawn in the back that was kept alive thanks to a vast network of sprinklers that went off every morning. We also had to go out and buy a machine to cut the grass because in addition to being in a dry climate we are also in a high fire zone and long grass is a risk. In exchange for this liquid, financial, and sweat investment, we got a big green rectangle that our dog liked to poop on, and that’s about it.

And the lawn isn’t just a bad deal for us, the humans — it’s also a bad deal for local wildlife. Lawns take up a bunch of space that could otherwise be used to host native plants. Why are native plants important? Well, one nice thing is that they evolved in the place I live so they’re more likely to be able to survive with very little work on my part, which I like because I’m very lazy.

But another reason is because they also evolved in this area along with native insects. Coevolution is extremely common — two different species exist in the same environment and each influences the others’ development, sometimes in an antagonistic “arms race” kind of way. 

One common plant/insect pairing that you may know is that if you want monarch butterflies in your garden, you plant milkweeds (note that you should check what species of milkweed are native to your area to avoid doing more damage than good). The butterflies lay their eggs on the milkweed, but the milkweed evolved spiky hairs to stop that. It didn’t, because the caterpillars that hatch evolved the ability to clear the hairs to get to the leaf. But the milkweed evolved so that when the caterpillar finally bites into it, it gets a mouthful of sticky poison. But then the caterpillar evolved to negate the poison and on and on it goes. It all sounds really annoying for everyone involved but hey, that’s life! And after a hundred million years or so of adaptation, monarchs and milkweed are inseparable. It’s kind of like those old couples that have been together for 70 years and they’ve spent so long adapting to one another’s specific eccentricities that there’s just no way they can ever partner with someone else. In the same way that Aunt Doris will never find a partner once Uncle Steve dies, when milkweed goes away, so do the monarchs.

And why is *that* important? Well, because for a start many of those insects, like butterflies and bees, are pollinators so they make shit grow. But also, there are all the native birds and lizards that coevolved to prey upon those native insects. That’s right, you’re back in third grade and we’re talking about the food web. It’s all connected! It’s all important!

I’m thinking about this all right now in part because I am growing my own tomato plants and realized that I had a lot of flowers but the flowers weren’t magically turning into tomatoes, so I moved a plant over to a lavender bush where I’ve seen bees hanging out and BAM, tomatoes! Exciting! And that got me to wondering about quarantine, and whether or not nature ever got around to healing while we humans were mostly stuck inside not fucking things up for other species as much as we usually do. Remember all those bee problems we had a few years ago? Did quarantine help with that?

Turns out, no. Not really. Sorry.

The big news years ago was “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon that was observed in honeybee populations over the past few decades. A significant percentage of honeybee populations suddenly, mysteriously died off and the weird thing is that scientists are still not sure why. Could be pesticides, could be parasites, could be global warming — could be all of those things and more! And if it continues, it could be bad for humans due to the fact that honeybees are responsible for pollinating about 75% of all plants used for human consumption worldwide.

That said, that’s not the real bee issue you should worry about. Yes, there’s more than one bee to worry about. 

You see, honeybees encompass just a handful of the more than 20,000 different bee species, and they aren’t native to the United States — they’re actually Eurasian. Accordingly, here in the US we don’t need *any* honeybees to survive just fine. Honeybees are used in agriculture, because unlike my milkweed/monarch example, they aren’t picky about what they pollinate. You can take a hive to a field of almonds, let them out, and they’ll be like “oh cool so it’s almonds today? Whatever man” and go to work. They’re generalists!

If farmers didn’t have honeybees, native bees could fill in some niches where appropriate, but not as easily on a mass scale. Native bees like bumblebees tend to be solitary and picky specialists, so it’s much more difficult to make them work for us humans. (That said, if you’re growing the plants that the native bees coevolved with then they’ll probably do a better job than the honeybees.)

So the real problem isn’t just the ongoing mysterious die-off of non-native honeybees used in commercial agriculture (an industry that has about 1,000 other possibly more pressing sustainability problems to deal with) — it’s the corresponding die-off of native bees, and that isn’t mysterious. It’s most likely due to loss of habitat and pesticides. I could tie this all together by highlighting the small scale: too many lawns! But let’s be honest: the lawns are bad but industrialization has destroyed vast swaths of native habitat. And not just paved over post-paradise parking lots, but also industrial “monoculture” farmland where a single crop takes over many acres of land, making wild bees sad bc no one wants to eat nothing but corn for the rest of your life, even if the rest of your life is like three more months.

And unfortunately, the wild bee population hasn’t been doing great lately. In January, researchers from the Pollination Ecology Group at the Institute for Research on Biodiversity and the Environment published this kind of depressing news that since 1990, bee species worldwide have declined by about 25%. They found this by examining the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which has gathered data from museums and field observations from 1946 to the present day. Of course, that data isn’t perfect — we can assume that as the decades pass, humans got better and better at logging this kind of data, which makes the finding even worse. Like, we have MORE data now, but we’re finding fewer species of bee. And remember, thanks to coevolution, there’s a chance that if we lose a specific species of bee, we may also lose a corresponding plant.

But, there’s a new study that offers a bit of hope: Matthew Sarver, an ecologist at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, conducted a survey of the native bees found at the center’s gardens. For two years, he collected nearly 3,500 bees from 135 different species found across three of the center’s areas, two of which were natural and one of which was cultivated. He found FIFTEEN species that were never before found in Delaware, including one threatened species that hasn’t been seen within hundreds of miles.

The biggest discovery was that the largest diversity of bee species wasn’t found in the wild areas but in the cultivated garden where they had purposely planted native plants that attracted specialist bees that pollinated them.

Usually when I talk about environmental issues like global warming, I take pains to note that the problems are created by large industries and must ultimately be solved by regulating those industries — recycling your cans and , but in this case, this study specifically offers a solution that YOU can contribute to. Sarver spoke to the Washington Post, saying ““These are very small animals; you don’t need 100 acres to make an impact. A tiny bee can do well in a small residential setting. It’s a great opportunity for conserving biodiversity, but enough of us have to do it.”

I’ll be honest, re-wildling my yard hasn’t been the easiest thing. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there on the best way to do it — my research found a bunch of experts suggesting sheet mulching, but it was hard to figure out how much mulch and compost and how many layers to do, and then what kind of mulch would be best for the yard, for the plants, and then for fire resistance. And once I decided on a plan and went to work, a friend pointed me toward one expert who says maybe sheet mulching isn’t the best thing after all, which honestly really depressed me because jesus christ, can I do nothing right?

But reading this study has renewed my spirit. Maybe I won’t do it perfectly, but at the end of the day — well, by the end of next spring I guess — my space will be at least a little better for the environment than I found it, and in a time that feels like I’m just helplessly watching as things get worse and worse, I think I really could use the knowledge that I, as an individual, can make a real, noticeable, positive impact on the planet.
Join me! Even if you don’t have a yard, you can fix up a window or a balcony to help contribute to native species.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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5 Comments

  1. My partner has been saying the same thing for tge last few years. We live in Sacramento. And we replaced our grass with clover. It does not require as much water, it still looks green, its Native to NorCal, and both bees and local pollinators love it. But we dont have HOAs. So people don’t complain. If you need any advice or even some help. Let me know. We are always down for ecology advice.

  2. I know what you mean about native plants. I do natives in southern California, strictly amateur, and they’re very site and plant specific. If they’re from the wetter coniferous/ oak woodlands, amendments are probably necessary. If they’re from the dryer chaparral, amendments can be bad.

    I’m in a chaparral/ coastal scrub area. The soils would be considered poor, with little to no organic matter. That’s what the plants are adapted to, and amendments can kill them. In addition to that, many go into a summer dormancy. If they get watered during that period, they die.

    Another thing to consider, California is updating the fire codes for high fire danger areas, and mulch will be illegal within 5′ of the house. Any kind of mulch, and plants greater that 18″ tall. And even if you don’t fall into high fire danger areas, many insurance companies are starting to enforce it.

    See PRC 4291, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=PRC&division=4.&title=&part=2.&chapter=3.&article=

    1. Thanks but as I said, I literally own a house in a high fire risk zone so I’m well aware of the laws. The fire department goes door to door this time of year ensuring each property is up to code (we passed and my mulching is fine). I’ve already replaced the decorative mulch that was next to the house with rock.

      1. Sorry, I do fire clearance inspections, so I tend to switch into education mode. Not badged. It’s for a local program that helps people meet defensible space standards. And I’m getting allot of push back on the new 5′ clearance code. People can have great clearance out 100′, but that 10′ around the house is their oasis. And I have to tell them that sorry, you can’t have that bougainvillea mounded up over your wooden patio cover and onto your roof anymore.

        My own neighborhood, a large residential area in the middle of the big city, has just been reclassified as high fire danger, due to the open space preserves in the area. (Wouldn’t give those up, though).

  3. This was really great! When my spouse and I moved into our current home on the east coast US, the front yard was completely covered with English ivy, an invasive non-native species. We knew immediately that we wanted the ivy gone and replaced with a native plants garden, in my case especially for the insects, but it took us some time to get to it. In 2019, we finally managed to get all the ivy pulled up and mulched, in preparation for getting a bunch of plants started the following spring. Once we started, I actually started having some second thoughts about the whole thing, as it was clear we were disrupting a lot of insect and other arthropod habitat in the ivy, and even discovered a couple small garter snakes that we’d rendered homeless, but we were already committed. Then in 2020 of course, covid hit, and everything shut down just as we were planning to start trying to buy some native plants. We managed to get a few things planted anyway, but this year was the first year we actually have had a pretty significant number of plants, flowering and otherwise, in for the full season. And holy moly, the effect on the insect biodiversity has been immediate and incredibly satisfying. For pollinators, we’ve had multiple species of bee, wasps, butterflies, and more; there’s complex food webs of aphids and ladybugs; the spider population is doing fantastic. I don’t think we’re anywhere near perfect as far as taking the absolute best strategy or picking the best collection of plant species to optimize the habitat for pollinators and other insects, but it’s clear that perfect isn’t necessary. Just having a nice garden with a few native plant species and no grass monoculture is enough. The other day when the weather was really nice and I had the windows open to let air in while working at home, I realized that I was listening to the healthy drone of insects — and that it was something I had barely heard in my daily life in years.

    We’re living in dark times, and part of the pain of it is knowing that there is more darkness yet to come, and feeling like there’s nothing we can do to stop it. But we can still do good in our immediate daily lives, even if that’s just providing a bit of insect habitat within an otherwise sterile-seeming urban or suburban landscape.

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