A balm for specialist bees — native plants (What’s in your back yard)
By DAVID WASMUTH
For Montclair Local
As March advances, even the least observant start to notice early signs of spring: the first crocuses blooming, daffodils emerging, birds announcing their presence.
For me, though, spring doesn’t really kick off until I see the first blooms of the aptly named spring beauty (Claytonia), one of our earliest blooming native plants. Its tiny blossoms are easy to overlook when they first appear in early April, but by the end of the month they can create a dramatic white carpet in wooded areas. An ephemeral spring species, they will vanish by June, leaving space for later bloomers.
But these flowers have value beyond aesthetics. Like most native plant species, they play an essential role in supporting native wildlife. Spring beauties are the only food source for a specialist native bee, the minuscule (less than one-third of an inch) spring beauty andrena, active only during the few weeks this flower is in bloom.
This relationship between a native plant and a specialist bee species is just one of many. About 20% of our native bee species are specialists, reliant on from only one to three species of plants for their survival and active only when those plants are blooming.
Unfortunately, the rise of suburbia, with its monocultures of lawns punctuated by non-native plant species, is helping to put many of these specialists at risk.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You may think your yard is insignificant in supporting wildlife, but from the perspective of native insects it is vast; as Virginia-based bee specialist Sam Droege points out, “Your yard is like Yellowstone to a bee!”
But how to transform your yard from suburban wasteland to Yellowstone?
The answer is simple. Native bees, particularly specialist native bees, depend on native plants. The more space you convert from lawn and non-native plantings to native plants, the greater the variety of native bees (and other native species) you will attract.
It doesn’t take a huge yard to make a difference. My own lot measures a modest 45 by 130 feet. On a summer day a few years ago, an entomologist from the Museum of Natural History visited for a bee survey. In under 15 minutes, she identified 16 different species of native bees — the most ever counted on a single site in Essex County.
New Jersey is no sloucher when it comes to bees; our relatively small state is home to at least 108 specialist bee species, the most of any Northeast state.
And it’s not just bees. Native butterflies and moths also depend on the native plants they co-evolved with, and many of these species are also specialists, depending on one or a small number of plant species to complete their life cycles.
Most famous is the monarch butterfly, which cannot survive without milkweed, but many, if not most, native plants have their own specialist insect species — fritillary butterflies with violets, spicebush swallowtails with spicebush, elfin butterflies with redbuds, to name a few. If you plant them, they will come.
And so will the birds. They feed on the seeds and berries these plants provide and, even more importantly, on the plump, juicy, nutritious caterpillars of those same butterflies and moths. Counting not just native bees but also native birds, butterflies, moths and other insects, your yard may eclipse Yellowstone to become the Serengeti – at least from the insects’ point of view.
Early spring is the ideal time to start planting your suburban Serengeti. Both the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation offer lists of wildlife-friendly plants with recommendations searchable by zip code. Entomologist Doug Tallamy has also written extensively on the topic, with suggestions to fit any space.
Choices range from tiny spring beauties and violets to conspicuous flowering perennials like milkweed, Joe-Pye, goldenrods and asters, to shrubs or small trees like cranberry bush viburnum, St. John’s-wort, red osier dogwood, redbuds and Juneberry, to full-size trees such as sugar maples and oaks.
The more varieties of native plants you include, the more species of native insects you will attract, and the livelier and more diverse your Yellowstone will be.
Of course, the last thing you want to do in your homegrown wildlife refuge is to massacre the wildlife. Unfortunately, this is exactly what’s happening in much of Montclair as “mosquito control” companies spray the yards of gullible residents with poisonous pyrethroids.
The spraying has little effect on mosquito populations, which are highly mobile and quick to reproduce. However, it is devastating to butterflies, bees, lightning bugs, ladybugs and other beneficial species, some of which are already struggling. Returning to the Yellowstone analogy, it would be comparable to aerially spraying the entire park with nerve gas.
Native bees get a bad rap in one respect. If I say “bee,” one of your first associations is likely to be “sting.” However, almost all native bees are solitary, with no interest in stinging, which results in the bee’s death and the end of its family line.
Our few native social bee species, such as bumblebees, are very docile and have to be severely provoked to sting. The non-native honeybee will sting if it senses that its hive is under threat, but even honeybees almost never sting while foraging in flowers. In fact, with most reported “bee stings” the actual culprits are non-native yellow jacket wasps, which resemble bees.
Tallamy coined the term Homegrown National Park to describe the idea of homeowners dedicating portions of their yards to native plants and the bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife that native plants support.
If enough of us join in this project, we could make a real difference in protecting the diversity and resilience of wildlife in the face of the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Your homegrown Yellowstone could be a key link.
In “What’s in Your Backyard,” Sanford Sorkin and David Wasmuth alternate writing about the birds and beasts you may see around your house. Wasmuth is a local environmentalist and amateur naturalist. He is a Rutgers Environmental Steward and the founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project. Seen a bird or animal you want to know more about? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.