Insects: The little things that run the world

They pollinate 90% of the flowering plants on earth; and they eat plants, the crucial first step in changing plant energy into the fats and proteins that feed hosts of other animals. In so doing, insects sustain Earth’s ecosystems.  They truly are, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “The little things that run the world.”

Yet globally, insect populations have declined by 47% since 1974, a loss that translates into a decline in the very ecosystems that sustain all life on earth, humans included! 

https://www.audubon.org/news/yards-non-native-plants-create-food-deserts-bugs-and-birds

What can be done to reverse this trend? By restoring native plant communities in yards and gardens, we can help reverse insect losses and restore ecosystem health to our yards and gardens. 

Why native plants? In study after study, it has been shown that native plants host many times more insect species than do non-natives. 

Which insect groups are most important? In Nature’s Best Hope, author Doug Tallamy suggests selecting native plants that support two important insect groups: large, nutritious insects (think caterpillars of butterflies and moths) and bees. Caterpillars are the mainstay of most bird diets; and native bees perform the lion’s share of pollination. 

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/halictid_bees.shtml 

Where can I find resources for host plants native to my area?

Planting a diversity of native plants chosen for their ability to provide food for caterpillars and flowers for nectaring bees, ensures not only a prairie garden filled with a diversity of insects and birds, but also a garden that contributes to a healthier environment. And it is all happening right outside our door! 

Reference: 

Tallamy, Douglas W.  2019. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Gardeners make EVERY DAY Earth Day

One week ago today was the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day demonstration in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts are lasting results of that first Earth Day! Yet much more remains to be done, and it can’t happen on just one day of the year. Earth Day reminds us that every day is Earth Day.

As gardeners and stewards and of our immediate environment, we are already making a difference in our own backyards and communities. As we explore and connect with nature each day, we are establishing a care ethic to make positive decisions for the environment, present and future.

Support biodiversity at home

This year, Earth Day recognized the enormous challenges – and vast opportunities – of climate action. So, what better place to start climate actions than in our native prairie gardens? Native prairie gardens are – by their very nature – pollinator gardens. They attract an abundance of pollinators (and other small creatures as well) throughout the growing season. In so doing, they help conserve biodiversity, protect species threatened by climate change, and restore ecosystem balance.

But native gardens do so much more to mitigate climate change. They hold and conserve water, store carbon in extensive root systems, build fertile soils, and help maintain cleaner air. In tending native gardens, we benefit as well by experiencing beauty, joy, and a sense of well-being.  

Pollinator Garden Resources

You can celebrate Earth Day every day by joining Earth Day 2020’s campaign to Protect Our Species. Because the Monarch butterfly is currently vulnerable and declining, it is one of ten species directing the Earth Day Network’s conservation efforts in 2020. Earth Day 2020 provides an informative Pollinator Garden Toolkit, and Pollinator Garden Worksheet to help you plan or add to your pollinator garden. 

Then, attend the online FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, with its large selection of hearty, native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs suitable for a diversity of habitats. If you have questions, FloraKansas has experts available too!

Connect to the broader community

Last, but not least, invite your neighbors, friends and family to join you in your efforts to create pollinator-friendly spaces. Garden by garden, we can create a mosaic of native habitats that benefit a broader community of both pollinators AND people!

Photo: A native metallic green sweat bee Agapostemon sp gathering pollen from wavy-leaf false dandelion Microseris cuspidata. (Lorna Harder photo taken 20 Apr 2020)

References:

Fall Gardening for Spring Bees

Shorter days, cooler nights, bronzing prairie grasses and asters in bloom – all herald the arrival of fall on the prairie. However, as this year’s abundant growth recedes, our garden’s care and keeping into the fall and winter will affect both plants and pollinators in next year’s garden.

Mason Bees

One of our most desirable spring pollinators is the Mason Bee; and our prairie gardens provide great habitat for this species. You can begin planning now to attract this special native bee species.

Mason bee (Osmia sp) females carry dry pollen in a patch of hairs on the underside of the abdomen, a feature they share in common with other females in the leaf-cutting bee family (Megachilidae).
Photo By Rollin Coville (https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/wildlife/types-of-bees-osmia-mason-ze0z1311zcov)

Mason bees are solitary nesters. They are incredibly efficient pollinators (one Mason bee can do the work of 60 honey bees), and they are docile. In March, adult females emerge, mate, lay eggs for 4-6 weeks, and then die.

Eggs are laid in a series of small chambers the females build within tunnels of dead wood or hollow plant stems in a protected spot. Each egg is provisioned with pollen and then plugged with mud, hence the name “mason.” Eggs develop for the remainder of the year. Allowing stems and dead woody plant materials to remain in our gardens in fall and winter preserves developing Mason bee larvae that may be present. 

Create a Nesting Box

Because a number of our North American native bees, including Mason bees, are in decline, native gardeners can further encourage Mason bees by adding nesting bee boxes. Bee boxes are simply made, whether from wood, bamboo or cardboard.

Simple, untreated wood block nesting bee box with holes plugged.
By Red58bill – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6022789

As you plan for spring, you might include a bee box-making day as a winter project. Install your bee box in a dry, warm, protected spot early next spring, make sure there are a number of nearby sources of pollen and mud, and you are welcoming one of our most interesting native bees, the Mason bee, into your spring prairie garden!

Citations: 

Further information on Mason beekeeping: