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The Insect Apocalypse Is Here

butterfly

Echinacea, cone flower, and butterfly

The New York Times Magazine (12-2-2018) article The Insect Apocalypse is Here by Brooke Jarvis reveals to people like me, who rarely pay attention to most insects, that the population of bugs in the world is declining. Some of  us can remember years when driving through the summer nights required hours of cleaning the car windows, removing all the dead bugs. No more. We suddenly realize that particular chore has not been necessary for years. Why not?

Some answers come easily. Farmers and gardeners use pesticides which kills many insects. But other causes include habitat loss, the killing of native weeds, single-crop agriculture, invasive species, light pollution, highway traffic, and climate change is possibly the newest threat.

As a long time gardener I have been aware of the declining number of Monarch butterflies and bees. Many years ago, when we lived on 30 acres of fields in Heath, we enjoyed the Monarch migration in late summer when there were flocks of Monarchs fueling up on the mint that was running rampant in a field. Then there were years when we did not see these clouds of butterflies. Now I get all excited in my small urban garden to see five Monarchs on my coneflowers, bee balm, asters  and asclepias (milkweeds).

Aesclepias tuberosa

Aesclepias tuberosa for the honey bees. The is where they drink and lay their eggs.

As a former beekeeper aware of threats to bees I also plant cardinal flowers, obedient plant, buttonbush, culver’s root, and turtlehead and welcome every kind of bee that visits. I am doing what I can to support these ‘bugs’ but it will take more.

Doug Tallamy, who teaches entomology at the University of Delaware, and author of Bringing Nature Home, said “You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects. How much worse can it get than that?”

When Tallamy spoke at our local Spring Garden Symposium a couple of years ago he noted two threats, “Humans’ war on weeds and vast farmland planted with the same few crops.   Weeds and native plants are what bugs eat and where they live. Milkweeds, crucial to the beautiful monarch butterfly, are dwindling fast. Manicured lawns in the United States are so prevalent that, added together, they are as big as New England. Those landscapes are essentially dead zones.”

Tallamy has taken his own action. He now lives in a rural area between Philadelphia and Baltimore. He planted his ten acre patch with native plants, that will sustain many bugs. Now he has 861 species of moths and 54 species of breeding birds that feed on insects. Unlike my friends who are birders, I did not know that almost all birds need insects to feed their fledglings. Insects are high in protein and vital.

 Before there was Tallamy, there  was E.O. Wilson, who has spent much of his life studying ants. He warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

The German Krefeld Entomological Society, a group of mostly amateur naturalists, have been keeping records of insects for over a hundred years. With an article by Sally McGrane in  the NYTImes in 2017 they  sounded the alarm. Others were beginning to notice the lack of bugs, but no one else had a record of what was. I think we will all get more serious about what the risks are.

When I looked to see if anyone had noticed there was an Insect Apocalypse on its way, I found several articles. The NYTimes wrote about the Silence of Bugs earlier this year. Last year Science Magazine asked Where Have All the Insects Gone

The Insect Apocalypse is Here is a fascinating article and I am still taking it all in.

Bee balm and bees

Bee Balm (Monarda) and bees

 

Greenfield Bee Fest #5

The Fifth Annual Bee Fest will be held at the Second Congregational Church on Bank Row in Greenfield on Saturday, June 6 at 10 am.  The event includes the Langstroth Lecture from 10-11 m – honoring the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth who once served at the church and who discovered ‘bee space’ and created the modern bee hive with movable frames. There will also be activities for children including a Honey Bee Tea Party and  a Bee Parade through the Farmer’s Market. Bee sure to wear your very best bee outfit!  There will be workshops and face painting. Don’t miss a minute!  There will also be a workshop from 11-11:30 am for those considering a backyard bee hive. The Bee Fest is a great opportunity to learn about this valuable pollinator and have a good time. Be sure to buy a raffle ticket for one of the Bee Baskets with donated prizes worth $100-$200. All proceeds go to benefit SNAP or the Heifer Project.  Pollinators are vital to our nation’s health and  economy and President Obama has established a Pollinator Task Force to help us all help all the pollinators. We all need to protect our honey bees and all the other pollinators that turn flowers into food.

Raffle Bee Fest BAsket #2

RAffle Bee Fest Basket #2

Raffle Bee Fest Basket #1

Raffle Prize Bee fest Basket #1

Emerald Ash Borer Awareness Week

Giant Emerald Ash Borer on the Bridge of Flowers

Giant Emerald Ash Borer on the Bridge of Flowers

I just learned about Emerald Ash Borer Awareness Week (May 19-23) which is almost over, but I did  want to remind everyone about the necessity to watch for EAB damage.  The Emerald Ash Borer has been found in Berkshire County and most recently (Dec. 2013) in Essex County.  I wrote about the EAB in 2012, before it had arrived here.  The US Forest Service has an excellent website about this dangerous pest that can kill ash trees within three to five years.

Companion Planting – Folk Wisdom or Science?

Companion Planting Chart

When I first learned about companion planting I thought it was a bit of simple folk wisdom. Plant your peas and carrots together, but keep them away from dill. Plant marigolds near the tomatoes, and soybeans with anything. This information, which is available in lists in books and on the Internet, has been my guide every spring when I rotate the vegetables around in my garden. Of course, in my small rotating vegetable garden I am also practicing the most basic element of companion planting which is polycropping, not having so many of one type of plant close together, making it easy for pests to find them, or for disease to spread.

However, over the years I have come to understand that companion plants help each other in a number of ways, starting with providing nitrogen or other chemicals to the soil that one way or another benefit another plant. For example, the carrot growing underground exudes nutrients into the soil, as do other roots, but the carrot’s exudations particularly benefit the growth of peas. This was something I generally understood to be the basis of companion planting.

I knew the ancient three sisters planting of corn, beans and squash was another example of companion planting, but I didn’t take in that the three sister system expresses three kinds of companionate activity. We all know that the beans help supply nitrogen to the corn and squash. In addition, the corn is providing support for the beans in a companionable way, and the squash is keeping down weed growth while helping conserve water.

Clearly there are a variety of ways that plants help each other. Some companions help by making it difficult for pests to locate the target, like your cabbage. Pests locate their target by chemical/fragrance cues, or visually. Polycropping makes it difficult to locate a target visually. Planting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums, and herbs or aromatic plants like those in the onion family repel pests by filling the air with odors unpleasant to the pest. This aspect of companion planting makes a good case for keeping a number of herbs like borage, basil, and hyssop in the vegetable garden, in addition to in a pretty herb garden close to the house where they are handy to the kitchen.

Trap or catch cropping is another aspect of companion planting. Flea beetles can be a problem for tomatoes and eggplant, as well as for the cabbage family. As much as flea beetles like these crops they like mustard even more. Once you get the flea beetles munching away on the mustard which is planted a distance away from the targets, the trick is to then destroy the mustard and the beetles together. The books haven’t explained to me exactly how to do this without sending the flea beetles fleeing, but I am continuing my researches.

You can also plant flowers in the vegetable garden that will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and beneficial wasps. Some of the best annuals are bachelor buttons, sweet alyssum, lobelia, scabiosa, and dahlias.

Yet another way of using companion plants is by using accumulator plants like comfrey, coltsfoot, yarrow (achillea), and even dandelions as part of your fertilization scheme. Accumulator plants are those whose roots collect various nutrients in the soil and carry those nutrients into the plant’s foliage. Achillea or yarrow is a common, easy care flower in the perennial garden. It also accumulates notable amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) in its foliage. Yarrow is a little living sack of NPK fertilizer, with the three major nutrients required for plant growth. It is not as strong as 5-10-5 fertilizer, but still. Make sure you put these plants in your compost pile at the end of the season, or dry them, crush the foliage and then mix that material into the soil.

Dandelions also have that NPK accumulation as well as amounts of trace elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and silicon. Comfrey accumulates nitrogen and potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and boron. Although fertile soil contains minute amounts of trace elements they are all vital to healthy plant development.

While I have been concentrating on those plants that benefit each other, one way or another, the companion planting system also notes that certain plants have enemies. Onions are good companions for beets, strawberries, tomatoes, members of the cabbage family and lettuce, but should be kept away from peas and beans.

According to Louise Riotte, author of the classic Carrots Love Tomatoes, fennel should not be planted near almost anything. On the other hand, if it is planted near cilantro, the fennel will not set seed.

There are many mysteries in the garden. Some of those mysteries are becoming understood as research continues. Experiments are difficult in the field because there are so many variables including what effect the wind is having on the garden on any given day.

I do rotate my crops and I do pay attention to plant companions and enemies, but I also know that one of the surest ways to have healthy strong plants is to have healthy soil rich in organic matter. Feeding the soil with compost and organic fertilizers like greensand, and rock phosphate if it is needed is the most dependable way of insuring a healthy garden.###

Between the Rows   March 22, 2014

Joe Pye Weed for the Butterflies

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium, is a native plant whose range extends from Texas to Maine. It can be used in perennial flower beds, or allowed to flourish on the roadside or in fields. I planted a small variety in my garden this spring, but I love the 6 foot tall ‘weeds’ that grow in the fields.

Joe Pye Weed

I am not successful of getting  photographs of butterflies, but butterflies find lots of nectar in the tiny blossoms of the Joe Pye Weed flower head, which can be very broad. It is easy to grow in sun or very light shade, in soil moist or dry. While it is a good nectar plant for butterflies, it does not support caterpillars.  Host plants for caterpillars include milkweed, dill, parsley, cabbage, sunflowers and many others. For a more complete list click here.

This year in my own garden I found that garlic chives are a great nectar plant. Next year I am going to plant mountain mint which also attracts many butterflies and other pollinators.

Bringing Nature Home at the Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium

Dr. Douglas Tallamy

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, was the keynote speaker at the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Spring Symposium last week. His talk focused on the need for more insects to make our gardens – and the world – healthier and more ecologically balanced. “A mere 1 % [of all insects] interact with humans in negative ways. The other 99 % pollinate plants, return the nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals to the soil, keep populations of insect herbivores in check, aerate and enrich the soil, and as I keep stressing, provide food either directly or indirectly for most other animals,” Tallamy writes in his book and illustrated in his talk.

Bringing Nature Home

 

His enlightening talk covered a lot of ground, but two ideas made a particular impression on me. The first was the idea of the environmental carrying capacity of our local landscape, and ultimately of the whole earth. The term carrying capacity refers to the amount of resources needed to sustain a certain population. It is easy to understand that a given population of insects, or birds or whatever, will decline when the food they require decreases.

So, what happens when, for example, the emerald ash borer, which is a threat inMassachusettsright now, were to kill all the ash trees? Forty-four insect species rely on the ash tree to survive. No ash trees; no more 44 insect species. And that means reduced food for the creatures who depend on those insects so their populations will decline as well. Insects are the very bottom of the food chain and we usually do not consider how important they are to the wildlife that we enjoy. At least, that is true for me.

Tallamy said many people ask him why insects can’t eat some other tree or plant? He explains that over thousands of years plants and insects have evolved together. The insects’ digestive systems have adapted/evolved to digest the particular chemicals in a plant’s foliage. They cannot immediately adapt to a new plant. That is one of the reasons that invasive plants can take over. The food web of insects, birds and wildlife cannot keep the invading plants in check.

The second idea Tallamy put forth is that not all native plants are equal. Some plants support many more species of wildlife than others. This was an eye opener for me. I have been talking about the benefits of native plants for a long time, but this idea never occurred to me. As you might expect, trees are the most productive in having what it takes to support many insects and birds. Trees are big. But even here, some trees are more productive than others. In his book, and on his website, www.bringingnaturehome.net, Tallamy lists the 22 of the best woody plants beginning with oaks that support 534 species, down to the chestnut which supports 125 species. Black cherries, maples and willows are also highly productive.

If we don’t have the room to plant an oak or two, we might be able to fit in a crabapple or some blueberries. We can plant asters, morning glories and lupines in our ornamental gardens. We can not only marvel at and admire the lupine meadows that some people in our area have cultivated, we can thank them for supporting 33 species of wildlife.

Those lupine meadows also remind up that birds and other pollinators need clumps of productive native plants. Their eyesight is not always good so they need big clumps of a useful plant to catch their attention. Tallamy pointed out that 80% of our food crops are pollinated by animals. It is clear that supporting that wildlife is very important in our area where there is a growing number of farms.

Lately I have been talking about the benefits of reducing the size of our lawns. Tallamy said that 92% of landscape-able land is lawn, lawn which is a monoculture that does not support wildlife. He suggested that if we reduced the amount of lawn in theUnited Statesby half we would have 20 million acres that could be put to native trees and other native plants. This would certainly increase the carrying capacity of our neighborhoods and our nation.

Suburban yards can play an enormous part in restoring the health of our ecosystem. A whole neighborhood that includes a substantial number of native trees, shrubs and other plants can make a significant impact.

I am so grateful to the Western Massachusetts Gardeners for bringing us this excellent program that included Ellen Sousa of Spencer and the author of The Green Garden, as well as workshops on making compost, hypertufa containers and bentwood trellises that not only make our gardens healthful and productive, but beautiful as well.

Their Spring Symposium is their big educational effort of the year, and there are two more Symposia coming up on April 6 in Holyokeand April 13 in Lenox. Check their website http://www.wmassmastergardeners.org/ for complete details. However, they hold soil testing events, phone and email hotlines where you can get your questions answered, and lots of question answers right on the website. They even have a speakers bureau that can send a speaker to your club, or class, or other organization. If this is of interest to you send an email to toigraham@charter.net for more information.

Now I am wondering how many of us will find a place to plant an oak. Or a crabapple.

Between  the Rows –  March 23, 2013

Sweet Winter Fare Meal and Event

Honeybees photo courtesy of beneficialbugs.org

What sweeter way to begin the Winter Fare activities that with a honey brunch at Green Fields Market.

Sweet Honey and the Brunch!
Sunday, February 5 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Green Fields Market, Main St., Greenfield

Green Fields Market will feature local honey in a variety of dishes for this special brunch.   While you enjoy brunch, Shelburne’s Piti Theatre Company will be buzzing with information about their new production about bees (and the challenges they’re facing) To Bee or Not to Bee. Piti is launching a “10% For the Bees” Campaign in collaboration with Greening Greenfield and High Mowing Seeds, encouraging the replanting of 10% of business and home-owner lawns with bee- friendly habitat. The co-op will donate a percentage of brunch sales to the production which will premiere at the company’s SYRUP: One Sweet Performing Arts Festival, March 17th in Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls. Support the production at www.indiegogo.com/bee or learn more at www.ptco.org/bee.

Then put this interesting movie on your Winter Fare calendar.

Film Showing: “King Corn”

Wednesday, February 8, 7 p.m., Sunderland Public Library, School St., Sunderland

King Corn is a documentary about two friends and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation: corn. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, Ian and Curt plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most productive, most subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat — and how we farm. (Duration: 90 minutes). Free. For information, contact Aaron Falbel at (413) 665-2642 or visit  www.sunderlandpubliclibrary.org.

Dan Conlon who I wrote about here told me that corn syrup is just as bad for bees as it is for humans. Beekeepers routinely feed sugar syrup to bees during the winter and very early spring if they see that honey supplies in the hive are low.  Cane sugar is pure sucrose, and the nectar that honeybees gather is principally sucrose so bees process it just as they do nectar.

Corn syrup, as we all know, is cheaper than sugar which is why it is used in so many of our processed foods and soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup is also cheap for those large bee companies to use, but the bees do not find it as delicious as sucrose. Aside from their taste preferences, corn syrup is a problem for bees because it crystallizes in the hive and becomes so hard that the bees cannot eat it.

Fortunately we have beekeepers in our area who give us great honey like Warm Colors Apiary,  and the Shelburne Honey Company located at Apex Orchards. Pretty sweet.

Native Alternatives to Invasives

Purple loosestrife along a Heath roadside

“Invasive species have the potential to completely alter habitats, disrupt natural cycles of disturbance and succession, and most importantly, greatly decrease overall biodiversity, pushing rare species to the brink of extinction. Many ecologists now feel that invasive species represent the greatest current and future threat to native plant and animal species worldwide, greater even than human population growth, land development and pollution.” William Cullina of the New England Wildflower Society

We do not have to travel far to see the power of invasive plants. Look at local wetlands filled with the plumy spikes of purple loosetrife. Drive along I-91 coming into Greenfield from the south in the fall and see all the Oriental bittersweet climbing trees along the highway. See the acres of Japanese knotweed blooming in the fall along the roadsides.

Where and how did these exotic invasives get their start? This simple question has a multifaceted answer.

Over the past 300 years non-native plants have found their way to North America in a variety of ways. Some have come accidentally. Agricultural weeds have come in grain shipments, or in the ballast of early ships. Others have been introduced by horticulturists, and even the government.

As recently as 25 years ago I ordered several Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellaata) shrubs from the Conservation district. They grew well for several years, but eventually died, probably because of the competition by the wild grape vines I am always fighting.  They died, but it took me a while to notice that they had seeded all over the sloping field to the east of the planting. I assume this is one of those un-intended consequences that befall all of us from time to time – but it is making a lot of work for us now.

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is a shrub that can still be found at nurseries even though it is on the invasive list of plants in Massachusetts. The brilliant red fall foliage and its dependability are the reasons for its popularity.

So what can gardeners do? We choose plants like burning bush and purple loosetrife because of their beauty and because they suit our site.

First, gardeners have to educate themselves about which plants must be avoided. They can check the list on the New England Wildflower Society website, www.newfs.org. This site will not only list invasive plants, it will suggest native plants that provide many of the same attributes.  For myself, I have never really liked burning bush, and my highbush blueberries give the same red fall foliage – and blueberries.

Other alternatives to burning bush include Cotinus obovatus, the American smoketree. Many people plant this large shrub because they like the plumey ‘smokes’ in the fall. The deep red color is there all season long. Sweetspire, Itea virginica, is a smaller shrub if you have less space, and Clethra alnifolia, summersweet, gives you wonderfully fragrant flowers in summer as well as autumnal color.

Loosestrife in Buffalo hellstrip

This summer I was in Buffalo to get a preview of the fantastic Buffalo Garden Walk tour. One of the ‘hell-strips’ that my colleagues exclaimed over included purple loosestrife, half of us not recognizing it among the mixed planting of phlox, echinaceas and other perennials. It is a beautiful plant but so dangerous. Alternatives of Lythrum salicaria and L. virgatum, include Gayfeather, Liatris pynostachya and Filipendula rubra otherwise known as Queen of the Prairie which is a good strong grower, but not invasive. If you have a wet site swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata with its clusters of pale to deep rose on tall stems might be an answer.

The climbing tree in front of the Buckland Library is a Norway maple. This has been identified as such an invasive species that many public gardens and parks like Central Park in New York City have cut down all their Norway maples. It was planted to give children a good climbing tree. With the new library addition and new landscape that tree will need to be removed, but I suspect it will be replaced – and this time with a non-invasive climbing tree. I have been told that mulberry trees (and there are fruitless varieties) are good for climbing, as are apple trees.  There are a lot of apple trees in Buckland orchards, so this might be an appropriate tree – especially if someone volunteers to prune it during its youth to accommodate young climbers.

Other good native trees for the domestic landscape include Yellowwood (Cladastrus kentukea) which has flowers in spring and golden fall color, several birches, river birch as well as paper and sweet birch. Crabapples and mountain ash feed the birds.

In his excellent book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, which I cannot recommend too highly, Douglas W. Tallamy makes the point that even suburban gardeners play an important part in providing food and shelter for the wildlife that we welcome into our gardens, and maintaining a healthy balanced ecosystem.

That sounds reasonable – and easy, but we have to provide food that native wildlife find edible. We also need to pay attention to feeding all stages of these creatures’ lives. Butterfly larvae need to eat too.

Using native plants does not limit us to a few uninteresting varieties, but we will need to be aware of their importance, and then educate ourselves. There are many resources on the Internet and at your library and bookstore. In addition to Tallamy’s book the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has an excellent small book Native Alternatiaves for Invasive Plants.  Happy reading.

Between the Rows  August 28, 2010

Buzzin’ of the Bees

The bumbleebees are buzzin’ in the wisteria blossoms, and all kinds of bugs are biting me around my eyes, behind my ears and in the middle of my back where I can swat or scratch. It got so bad that in the heat of the day yesterday, I retired to the house for iced tea and a dip into Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles (Knopf $29.95).

I was entranced the first time I picked up this book and began at A  for Air. In 1926 a little monoplane took off from Tallulah, Louisiana to collect insects from the high altitudes. That was the first attempt to use an airplane, but not the last. While statistics tend to put me to sleep this chapter counts the amazing numbers of insects, some as common as ladybugs, at 6000 feet. Some are wingless, but carried by air currents. At 15,ooo feet a ballooning spider was found.  “Think of 26 million little animals flying unseen above one square mile of countryside. . . . a vault of insect laden air.”

But that is just an introduction to the insect world, which for Raffles in an introduction to many other facinating topics and a spur to his own thoughts and point of view as an anthropologist. He is interested in how humans interact with all manner of animals, including insects.

The twenty-six chapters or essays range between 2 to 44 pages, and cover insects from a variety of perspectives. In Chernobyl he writes about Cornelia Hesse-Honeggers painting of mutations in insects caused by radiation; in Fever/Dream he writes about malaria and his own attack; and in The Sound of Global Warming he writes about pinon engraver beetles.  Chapter headings like The Ineffable, Temptation and Zen and the Art of ZZZ’s take us to unexpected and fascinating places.  When the grandsons visit this summer I’ll be full of weird and wonderful facts. They love weird and wonderful things.

Raffles has said that writing this book as an ‘encyclopedia’ is bit of a joke, making fun of the idea that you can gather all the information about anything and put it in one place. But he is an anthropologist, not an entomologist, so he comes at insects in myriad ways, with references to artists, philosophers, novelists and the ways they approach the world, not only insects. The book (well footnoted if you are interested) ends with this: “Learn to live with imperfection. We’re all in this together. The miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.

I am still going to put on insect repellent when I go out in the garden today.

While Watching the Snow Fall . . .

Tarankanische (The Terrible Cockroach)

I’ve been browsing through the online Creepy Crawlies exhibit of children’s books from the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. These books date as far back as the 1744 edition of Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book.

The Terrible Cockroach by the Russian Kornei Chukovski and illustrated by Sergeii Chekhonin, published in Leningrad 1925, tells the nonsense tale of a threatening cockroach who is so fierce that he terrifies all the animals who are out to enjoy a picnic. Even the elephants are helpless in his presence. Until, that is, until a sparrow comes and gobbles him up.

Other stores include snails, bedbugs, dung beetles, and a caterpillar garden in a variety of styles from the cartoonish to the scientific.

Creepy crawlies remain a topic for children’s book writers and illustrators. Jim Aylesworth’s Old Black Fly published in 1992 is a case in point.

Old Black Fly by Jim Aylsworth

I have Garden History Girl to thank for this wonderful link which includes other virtual exhibitions.  She know a lot about gardens and all the things you will find in gardens.

Looking at these illustrations is more fun that looking at the sastrugi in the Sunken Garden.

Sunken Garden 2-26

Can you imagine how long it will take the 6 foot drift to melt in the spring?