Blue Ridge Naturalist: You Shouldn’t Need Honey Bees for Pollination

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The European (more accurately known as the “Western”) Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) was brought to America in hives by European settlers. It escaped domestication and can now be found in feral colonies. This one helped to pollinate the author’s peach tree, but many native pollinator species also assisted. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

At Cornell Orchards in Ithaca, New York, the scientists and managers of this 37-acre research and outreach facility decided this past spring to take, as they put it, “a leap of faith.” They chose to forego the assistance of commercial honey bees (hives of European bees trucked from growing area to growing area to ensure crop pollination) to see if their apple trees might still get adequately pollinated. To their surprise, they got a great crop of apples.

This news release astonished me. I’ve been to Ithaca, where there are many natural areas that include deep forests, wetlands and waterfalls, and dense brushy habitat for wildlife. How could resident researchers from the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science and the Department of Entomology at Cornell be surprised that there would be plenty of native pollinators in the area?

It might be because nowadays people think that they must personally orchestrate the workings of the natural world. But an orchard would only require the assistance of non-native honey bees if people had destroyed the biodiversity of the area—the incredible numbers of species that exist to perform such tasks as pollination.

Indeed, such eradication is taking place around the world, thanks to an increase in pesticide usage and development of the landscape, along with a decrease in natural-area preservation. A natural area un-trampled by humans maintains a reservoir of organisms for the future, should people ever again recognize the value of nature to their lives. Until they do, honey bees will continue to be needed to pollinate about a third of commercial food plants world-wide.

I’ve written hundreds of articles, and even a book, about nature-friendly gardening. Yet folks are still resistant to the main tenet of my thesis, which is that in order to be a successful gardener or farmer, you must blend your garden or cropland into the environment.

In other words, your food-growing areas must meld with the larger landscape around it so as to become one with it. This means you must allow native and naturalized plants (normally viewed as “weeds”) to grow among and in the vicinity of the plants you transplanted or started from seed.

When you follow this natural mandate, you don’t encounter the usual problems with insects and other invertebrates that most home and commercial gardeners believe are inevitable. Unfortunately, people doubt this truism, especially because scientists and extension agents talk about “pests” as if they are, indeed, a given when growing plants.

But the scientists, extension agents, garden writers and talk-show hosts are wrong. The problem for gardeners is not that certain organisms exist solely to kill their plants, but rather that gardeners haven’t provided habitat for the predators needed to keep plant-eating organisms in check.

Logic and common sense should tell us that no animal is supposed to eat itself out of house and home by killing the very plants it is dependent upon. If an organism destroys its food source, how will it survive to reproduce? And should it manage to reproduce, how will its progeny survive if there’s no food for them?

Thus when predators keep populations of plant-eating organisms limited to a population level that doesn’t seriously harm or kill the food plants of those organisms, the predators are aiding those creatures to keep their kind from going extinct. They are also allowing the food grower the ability to grow food without the use of pesticides that poison his world.

In order to invite predators to any property—large or small, commercial or private—you can’t treat it as a room inside a house that needs to be kept perfectly neat and sanitized. The overly ordered appearance of a property signifies ignorance of how the natural world works and how to garden or farm in agreement with nature.

Don’t get caught up in today’s societal standards that dictate a manicured look instead of a natural one. Garden cleanliness is definitely not next to godliness. It results in the need for pesticides to try to do the job predators could have done free of charge and much more safely, without effort on the part of the grower.

Instead, go wild! And don’t apologize for it.

My yard teems with numerous kinds of trees, shrubs, flowers, and wild grasses. Best of all, it’s absolutely alive with a variety of critters. A landscape teeming with wildlife is a landscape that is healthy.

To be a successful gardener or farmer, keep or create a variety of habitats to provide food, water, shelter, and nesting sites for a mix of wildlife. Accept that all wildlife is providing services so don’t be prejudiced against particular organisms.

There’s no harm in moving along critters that have taken up residence right around your house or farm buildings where you might experience an unpleasant or unsafe interaction with them. But you should never attempt to rid an entire property of particular kinds of animals.

Consider wasps: They limit the numbers of insects and spiders in addition to pollinating plants, which are all vital to the proper functioning of the environment. But if wasps start to build nests on or right by your house, you can tend to it in an environmentally friendly way.

Check every day all spring to very early summer to discover where nests have been started. As long as morning temperatures are still in the 40s, you can easily knock down nests without getting stung. There will be very few wasps per nest at this time of year and they can’t fly or even move much when it’s chilly. Therefore they will drop to the ground when you hit the nest.

But you must check carefully almost every day to get all the nests down before morning temperatures reach 50 degrees or above. By that time, very few wasps are still trying to start a nest. Vigilance is the key to avoiding or dealing with possible wildlife problems.

You needn’t take action at all if the location of a wasp nest poses no danger to you because, for example, it’s so high on the house that no one will ever be close enough to it to get stung. And don’t just turn to pesticides or poisons. It’s your responsibility to do your best to avoid serious problems with wildlife, and I’ve found that where there’s a will, there’s a way to deal with difficulties in a safe manner for you and the environment.

Why not make your New Year’s resolution the resolve to create a nature-friendly garden that’s safe for everyone—people, pets, wildlife, and the environment. It’s the only way to live.

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