Posts Tagged ‘pollinators’

Linking Food & Native Plants: You Have a Friend at NRCS

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Mark Ludwig of Sand Lily Farms writes:

You will be glad to know your local Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are both promoting field borders for farms and natural landscaping at home. There are cost share programs for field borders of native plants with guidelines for native pollinator and predator promotion and protection. Many counties have native plant sales and promotional events.

On its website, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (or NRCS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) describes simple and inexpensive ways farmers and gardeners can increase the number of bees on their land. Some of these, such as “exercising care with pesticides,” are no-brainers. Others are less obvious, like minimizing tillage to protect pollinators that live underground for most of the year, and allowing leafy crops like lettuce to bolt (flower) if possible to provide additional food for hungry pollinators. The NRCS website also has links to local Conservation Districts around the country.

Mark wasn’t the only person who reached out to offer ideas on resources and networks that could be useful for forging links between native plant and local food advocates. A couple that were mentioned repeatedly were Fair Food Matters and the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation program. And don’t forget all the great information on the best native plants for attracting beneficial insects based on research at Michigan State University.

Linking Food & Native Plants: A Landscape Designer’s View

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Douglas Kent, one of the country’s leading sustainable landscape designers, weighs in:

You are certainly right—natives make excellent  companion plants, attracting beneficials if not pollinators, or repelling unwanteds. Cal Poly’s Center for Regenerative Studies, where I teach, uses a lot of natives to enhance their food production.

Ripping out a lawn to plant food is not an environmental movement, though. It’s economic, or at least economic symbology. The best Tom and Nancy could do is to frame their position in those terms—natives will reduce costs (pesticides and water) and increase productivity. The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is seizing this trend and has designed, but not yet installed, an edible native garden (grape, miner’s lettuce, elderberry, currant, etc).

Getting people to rip out their lawns is completely  different (I’ve tried to understand and change this for the last 25 years). People that hold onto their lawns are not gardeners, and don’t want to be. Requiring no special care, lawns only need $100 a month and a service of mowers  and blowers. Interestingly, studies show that most beginning gardeners start by growing veggies, then evolve to more sophisticated styles of gardening, like natives, over time. Tom and Nancy should rejoice—food is a gateway.

Considering that agriculture is the number one destroyer of native landscapes, Tom and Nancy should not lament the food movement—what better use for urban/suburban landscapes than to protect those truly wild places. 

What You Think: Linking Food & Native Plants

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

You came through for Tom and Nancy! For the next few days, I’ll be blogging about some of your ideas on how to build on the interest in local and homegrown foods to promote native plants.

On Friday, I suggested that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. I also noted that it might be possible for supermarkets like Whole Foods that sell organic food to participate by promoting and selling native wildflowers instead of just cut tulips and the like.

Robbin Simmen, head of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge project, one of the biggest and best community horticulture programs in the country, responded:

I like the idea of encouraging retailers of food to sell native flowers. GreenBridge did this a couple of years ago with the Sustainable Gardening project where we reached out to the community gardeners who grow flowers to sell at the East New York Farms! market and asked them to grow Echinacea and Rudbeckia. They loved it because these plants are so bright, drought tolerant, and easy to grow, plus it’s an extra piece of interest for the shoppers to learn that they’re buying native plants.

Robin noted that another way to make connections between native and edible plants is to spread the word about native food plants. For example, she said she’ll be speaking on edible landscaping with native plants at the Brooklyn Food Conference on May 2nd. In her words, she’ll “be plugging blueberries and paw paws for human consumption, and lots and lots of native species for wildlife, the point being not to forget wildlife in our drive to feed ourselves!” 

Tom and Nancy Need Our Help!

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Three cheers for Nancy Small and her husband, Tom! When they retired in 1996, the two indefatigable former English professors began turning their half-acre yard in Michigan into better habitat for wildlife. Three years later, they founded a chapter of Wild Ones, the organization that promotes native plants and natural landscaping, and a couple of years ago, they established the Michigan Climate Action Network. But now, says Nancy, who emailed me the other day, they’re stumped and hoping we can help them out:

“Neither Wild Ones nor the environmental movement as a whole,” she writes, “have had much success in getting people to tear out their lawns in order to put in native plants for wildlife (or to reduce carbon emissions), but it’s beginning to sound as if people can hardly wait to get rid of their lawns in order to grow their own food” (which, as she points out, is a lot more work, and harder work, than growing native plants!). So Nancy and Tom are trying to build on the work of Michigan State University researchers who have demonstrated how native wildflowers, by providing pollen, nectar, and shelter to the pollinators and other beneficial insects that are critical for healthy agricultural systems, can help farmers increase crop yields. They’re asking us to put on our thinking caps and help them come up with ways to use the current interest in organic, local, and homegrown food to promote the notion that food plants and native plants are essential partners in a healthy landscape.

I told Nancy that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. Heck, we might even be able to get Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural foods markets to promote and sell native wildflowers instead of just the usual decapitated roses or tulips. So whaddaya think? Email me, and I’ll send your ideas (or even your words of encouragement) along to Tom and Nancy. 

Moth Brains

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Just when you think you can’t bear wading through one more impenetrable paper in a research journal, you stumble across an experiment that makes you fall in love with science all over again. Who could possibly resist the image of researchers wiring up moth brains to study how they perceive flower odors wafting through the air?

The sacred datura, an impressive (and hallucinogenic and poisonous) U.S. native perennial that produces huge, white, trumpet-shaped, and irresistibly fragrant blooms, is the favorite nectar source of the tobacco hornworm moth. To find the food, the moths must recognize the faintest whiff of datura and then track the scent upwind to the flower. In return for the meal, the moths pollinate the plant. To learn how the moth pollinator reacts to the 60 different chemicals that comprise the plant’s irresistible perfume, biology geeks at The University of Arizona in Tucson engulfed 20 flowers with Reynolds® Oven Bags and sucked the air out of the bags into a charcoal filter to capture all the chemicals. Back in the lab, they created a solution of the chemicals and injected it into a gas chromatograph. The chromatograph separated the chemicals and spewed them out one by one into a branched tube—one branch led to a wired-up moth and the other to a machine that identified and recorded the individual chemicals as they breezed by. Speakers attached to this gizmo emitted a rapid pop-pop-pop-pop sound if the moth was turned on by a chemical. Turns out the moth brains “popped” to only nine chemicals from sacred datura’s complex bouquet.

The scientists proceeded to study how 420 moths behaved toward the chemicals by putting a moth at one end of a wind tunnel and an artificial flower made of white filter paper doused with datura odors at the other. The insects were not impressed by the chemicals if they were presented one at a time. But when all nine chemicals that had made the moth brains “pop” were put on a paper flower, they stuck out their tongues to imbibe nectar, just as they would when faced with a real sacred datura flower.

Lead researcher Jeffrey A. Riffell’s first-hand account of the experiment is in today’s Science Daily. The paper, “Characterizing and Coding of Behaviorally Significant Odor Mixtures,” is in the current issue of the journal Current Biology. The title alone makes a persuasive case for the value of science journalism.

Be a Bee Watcher

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

Well, after years of writing about bee watching, I’m now an official Bee Watcher. Twice a month, from spring through fall, I’ll be observing which bee species visit six native wildflowers I’ve planted on the roof of my Manhattan apartment building: common sunflower, woodland sunflower, mountain mint, milkweed, beebalm and goldenrod. I’m part of a New York City citizen science program that hopes volunteers like me can help researchers understand the challenges facing these essential pollinators, among them parasitic wasps and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, which continued to decimate managed honeybee hives over the winter. There has been a lot of focus on honeybees of late, but surprisingly little is known about native bee species. Although they are also believed to be declining, there is little hard data to back this up, because most museum bee collections were made before World War II.

Being a Bee Watcher has its advantages. I’ve gotten free seeds and plants, and I’ve even learned a few things – for example, that North America has a very rich bee fauna, even relative to the tropics. This now includes 26 known introduced bee species in the U.S. and probably more – some of which are potential pests. And who knew that although butterflies and moths (except for migrants) tend to be sparse in urban habitats like mine, bees apparently take much better to city living?

The New York City Bee Watcher program is an outgrowth of the nationwide Great Sunflower Project, which is looking for volunteers. Which means you can be a bee watcher, too.