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I wrote a post for Pollinator Week last year, highlighting the diversity of species we find here on the farm. I didn’t plan to write another post this year, but this week I feel compelled to.

Yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) on native Coyote Mint (Mondardella villosa)

Yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) on native Coyote Mint (Mondardella villosa) – Click any image to enlarge

Before I get to my point, first I want you to imagine you’re a pollinator, a bumble bee, perhaps, like the one pictured above. Early every morning you set out to find your daily source of food. There are no weekends, no days off. Your survival, and the survival of your offspring, depends on your ability to gather enough food.

While out scouting for sources of food, your priorities are locating good sources of nectar, and pollen. You’re completely unaware of the hazards that may befall you.

It’s a beautiful late spring day when you encounter a stunning grove of trees that are laden with blooms. It’s a welcome sight as many of the spring flowers are now fading, as spring gives way to summer. You buzz from flower to flower, bloom to bloom, shoulder to shoulder with a myriad of other bumble bees who are feasting along side you.

Bumble bee foraging on organically grown culinary sage

Bumble bee foraging on organically grown culinary sage

After sipping nectar for a while, you suddenly feel weak, and disoriented. You find yourself rolling on the ground below, looking up through the trees, unable to right yourself, and incapable of flight. Then all goes dark. You felt fine this morning. Suddenly, you’re dead.

It wasn’t a natural death. You were poisoned. Your life needlessly cut short. There beside you, on the ground, are 50,000 others, just like you.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine that scenario at all, as earlier this week, in Wilsonville, Oregon, that’s what befell a local population of bumble bees, in what now has the distinction of being the largest known mass bumble bee death on record.[1]

Weak, disoriented, dead and dying bumble bees, as far as the eye can see. The culprit, reported by the Xerces Society, was the application of a pesticide, known by the trade name Safari® (Dinotefuran)[2].  According to the manufacturer’s website this is a “super-systemic insecticide with quick uptake and knockdown” and it reportedly “controls a broad spectrum of ferocious and invasive pests“. Unfortunately, like most broad spectrum insecticides, it also kills non-target species, including bees.

A honey bee on lavender 'Provence' this morning on the farm

A honey bee on lavender ‘Provence’ this morning on the farm

This horrific event appears to have been precipitated by the misapplication of a systemic insecticide by a landscaping contractor, during the period of bloom, to at least 55 European Linden Trees. This species of tree, much like our native Bay Laurel trees, is highly susceptible to aphids during the spring and summer months, which can produce copious amounts of honeydew that falls to the ground below. It’s a nuisance, and we deal with it almost every summer here on at least a few Bay Laurels, but it’s hardly enough to justify this sort of mass casualty. We ignore it, and occasionally have to spray down a walkway so it’s less sticky.

Skipper foraging on Eriophyllum

Skipper foraging on Eriophyllum

This incident is impressive by the virtue of the numbers of bees affected in a concentrated area. That’s what grabs the headlines, but every day this same egregious act is committed on numerous farms, and home gardens, all across the globe. We’re only shocked this time because all of the dead bodies were raining from the trees at a single location. The few bees visiting an insecticide laden prized rose bush aren’t noticed when they fail to return to their hive or nest.

Honey bee on Scrophularia californica

Honey bee on Scrophularia californica

I don’t say that to take away from the horror of this week’s event in Oregon, but to cause at least few who might read this to maybe stop, just for a moment, and consider what’s going on in their own gardens. I know a number of gardeners personally who still spray their plants at the first sight of a bug, or a hole in a leaf. It’s simply not necessary.

Pollinators, too numerous to count, are killed, some intentionally, but many accidentally, in home gardens, and on commercial farms, every year. Systemic and foliar applications of broad-spectrum pesticides in home gardens alone do the far more harm to struggling local pollinator populations than this single isolated incident.

Skipper on lavender 'Provence'

Skipper on lavender ‘Provence’

You may simply be striving to rid your garden of aphids, or a handful of cucumber beetles, but bees are insects, and butterflies are insects. Lady beetles, and lacewings too. It’s interesting though, because the usage labels on most bottles of home-use insecticides fail to mention that their product is also guaranteed to kill the beneficial insects in your garden as well. Bugs are bugs, and it’s almost impossible to kill one bug species without risking harm to another. My question is, why use insecticides, especially on ornamental plants like the Linden trees, at all?

An unknown visitor I've never seen before, foraging on Santolina

An unknown visitor I’ve never seen before, foraging on Santolina

We keep hearing terms like ‘colony collapse’, and we know that pollinators are struggling for a host of reasons ranging from resource availability, to pathogens, and pests, and yet more than 17,000 pesticide products are available for sale on the US market[3]. Even if pesticides aren’t the sole source of the challenges our pollinators are facing, they’re certainly responsible for compounding it, significantly! If you’re still using insecticides, you’re part of the problem.

Spraying even a single prized plant because of a few unsightly aphids, or beetles, can result in non-target species deaths. Would you walk up and kill this butterfly, on purpose? No? Then why would you poison its food?

A skipper nectaring on sage in the herb garden

A skipper nectaring on sage in the herb garden

For years I’ve taken the approach that if a plant is struggling too much to survive in my garden, then it simply doesn’t belong there, and it finds its way to the compost pile. When searching for a replacement I’ll then try to find something more suited to growing in its place. I certainly don’t have the time to prop up high-maintenance plants that struggle to thrive here.

If plants are weak because their needs aren’t being met culturally, I strive to correct it, as weak plants are more vulnerable to pests and disease. Meeting the cultural requirements for a plant can help it fend off pests, and pathogens. After that, if it still struggles, it’s gone.

If you’re a gardener, and you plant a garden full of blooming plants that attract beautiful butterflies, or birds, to feast on the nectar and pollen, then why would you poison that resource?

Note the bee hives in the background.  Can you imaging what would happen if I used an insecticide on this lavender?

Note the bee hives in the background. Can you imaging what would happen if I used an insecticide on this lavender?

We garden organically here, and don’t apply pesticides or herbicides to anything growing on the farm.  We don’t do this to create more work for ourselves, we do it to protect all of the species of beneficial insects here on the farm, as well as to protect our soils, and our watershed.

The nectar this bee is foraging on is safe

The nectar this bee is foraging on is safe

It’s been frustrating at times, and has taken time to achieve a relative degree of balance in the gardens. Some days the pests gain a foothold.  You should have seen the aphid encrusted fava beans last spring! Other days though  their predators overwhelm them. I watched clouds of soldier beetles this spring swarming around the tips of our cherry tree that had an aphid infestation. The aphids now are almost completely gone, and I didn’t do a thing.

Soldier beetles are the natural enemies of aphids

Soldier beetles are the natural enemies of aphids

We’re certainly not pest free, not by any measure, but we do have a tolerance for damaging insects on plants.  Nature has an amazing network of predators and prey. For every aphid, there is an adversary, like the Syrphid Flies we’ve posted about previously, but if we indiscriminately treated every plant with a few unwanted insects, we’d destroy the entire fabric of that network.

This morning I was watching a cluster of aphids and ants on the stem of a rogue thistle, and noted a number of almost imperceptibly small flying insects hovering nearby.

The hovering insects are predatory wasps, and barely larger than the ants that are defending the aphids

The hovering insects are predatory wasps, and barely larger than the ants that are defending the aphids

When I looked more closely I could see  they were some type of predatory wasp, and are clearly attracted to the presence of the aphids. I could spray the aphids, but why? The wasps are doing exactly what I want them to do, and if I leave them alone, maybe we’ll have less aphids next year. Even if I had sprayed the aphids with a seemingly harmless soap solution, I might have also knocked out some of these wasps. Beneficial insects are necessary allies on organic farms, and they should be considered the same in home gardens too. Quite honestly, I’m more intrigued watching the interaction of these predators, and their prey.

A predatory wasp attacks its target

A predatory wasp attacks its target

All the photographs, with the exception of the solider beetle, in this post were taken by me this morning, in less than an hour. Our gardens are very much alive, and we’re proud of that. It’s gratifying to walk to the vegetable garden area in the mornings and be distracted by so many insects along the way. However, although all of the bees, and butterflies, are safe from toxins here, their foraging ranges extend far beyond our own property lines.

A Skipper on Coyote Mint

A Skipper on Coyote Mint

I can’t control what others do on their properties, so who knows what hazards may befall some of these insects once they move beyond the flowers here. It’s our responsibility, however, to do our part to protect our local pollinator populations, and to try to educate, and encourage, others near the farm to do the same.

Honey bee collecting pollen from a native California Poppy

Honey bee collecting pollen from a native California Poppy

I would like to think that a massive die-off of 50,000 bumble bees might catch the attention of at least a few gardeners who continue to clutch onto their bottles of pesticides, and perhaps change their mind. If you’re still using pesticides in your garden, all I ask is that you ask yourself, why? Do you have non-toxic alternatives available to you before reaching for a toxic solution? What is your ‘prized rose’ really worth? Is the damage to that leaf really so intolerable?

Conservationists are now scrambling to cover the trees that I mentioned in the beginning of this post with a mesh to help prevent more bees from blundering unsuspectingly into the toxic Lindens[4]. As you can well imagine, it’s a herculean task to cover that many 30 foot tall mature trees, but the trees are still blooming, and the flowers are toxic, so it’s necessary to prevent more bumble bee deaths. I can only hope it’s successful.

Young Katydid on a California Poppy

Some consider Katydids to be pests, but overall the damage they do is minimal.

In the meantime, other than avoiding the use of pesticides in your garden, you can help with local pollinator conservation efforts through the Xerces Society.  They have a number of citizen science projects you can participate in, including an upcoming Citizen Science program, ‘Bumble Bee Watch’, launching in July of 2013[4]

They also have a Pollinator Protection Pledge that you can sign, online, to show your support for pollinator conservation, and Pollinator Week would be a perfect time to make that pledge.  All you have to do is agree to the following:

  • Grow a variety of bee-friendly flowers that bloom from spring through fall.
  • Protect and provide bee nests and caterpillar host plants.
  • Avoid using pesticides, especially insecticides.
  • Talk to my neighbors about the importance of pollinators and their habitat

We signed the pledge this week. Will you?

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[1] Xerces Society: Mystery Bee Kill: Causes Being Sought
[2] Xerces Society: Pesticide Causes Largest Mass Bumble Bee Death on Record
[3] Pesticide Action Network: Pesticides 101 Primer
[4] Pollinator citizen science projects through Xerces Society and their partners