Welcome some non-natives

mix of non-native plants
Mix of non-native garden plants

I make a distinction between two groups of non-native species that settle down and reproduce outside their homeland.

The bad guys include Asian hornets, Burmese pythons, Japanese knotweed, chestnut blight, spotted lanternfly, cane toads, kudzu, and giant hogweed … The list that harms our interests and natural ecosystems seems endless. Human traffic is responsible either through deliberate or accidental transfer of aliens. We don’t notice threats until too late to reverse. Most conquerors of natural habitats arrived after 1900, thriving in new worlds where natural controls of foreign population growth are weak and evolve too slowly. They came hidden in commercial cargo, on the soles of hiking boots, and chosen by well-meaning horticulturists, plant collectors, and others who never imagined a downside.

For example, I see miles of roadsides and nature trails bordered by dense Japanese stiltgrass that swamps native plants. Native grazers, ignore the pernicious weed. This is the season when left unmown, it sheds billions of seeds for germinating next year or lying dormant in the soil for years. That is only one of countless challenges to healthy ecosystems and farms. A recent U.N. report estimates a global annual cost of $423 bn.

We are urged to cultivate native plants. It’s sound advice though few garden centers sell them; some species no longer live where they used to thrive because of the changing climate. It’s easy to feel beaten by aliens spreading across land, river, and sea. As an elder now, I sadly remember things were different when I was a kid. But I have made peace with some non-native plants, pretty good guys that bring more benefit than harm to a garden. Without them many native species would not hold on.

After experiments, I found non-native plants to nurture that are attractive to us and to local wildlife welcome here. Each year gets better. Visitors are delighted with clouds of butterflies and the buzzing of contented bees navigating flowers. In late summer a flock of goldfinches rock on seedheads, and if we attract Japanese beetles, insectivorous birds soon follow!

The composite image shows my top five non-native plants: Mexican sunflowers, Blue Fortune sage, White clover, Lantana, and Mountain mint (native to VA but formerly absent in this district). They spread without my help and don’t aggressively displace our beloved natives. But what would they call us if they could? Worse than the worst, the most invasive species in Earth’s history, spreading on every continent to disrupt the evolved balance of nature.

World Honeybee Day at a Meadery

Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg, VA
Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg, VA

Plans for the morning were interrupted when I heard the Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg was filling glasses for all-comers this morning. And why? It’s World Honeybee Day on the third Saturday in August. The calendar event has gone international since 2009 for celebrating the benefits of pollinators and the only kind that manufactures sweet liquid gold.

There was more to attract attention than the chink of glasses in a small crowd gathering to start the weekend with “Cheers!” A beautiful mural stretching yards along a wall leading to the front door was unveiled by the meadery’s owners. It is as colorful as a children’s picture book, full of bright flowers, bees, and butterflies under a blue sky. The artist Emma Zahren-Newman titled it: “The Flight of the Honeybee, circa 1622.” Why the date? It is reckoned to be the year when the Virginia Company of London shipped honeybees to the Jamestown colony, then only 15 years old and barely hanging on after starvation and a fractious relationship with local Native Americans.

Although many native bee species exist here, they were probably the first honeybees introduced to North America. Evidently, they didn’t do well in this climate at first, but they followed the westward march of the frontier as European settlers grew new crops that depended on the services of Old World insects then and ever since.

Insectageddon means we are buggered

It was one of those throw-away remarks that stick in the mind. I was at Middlebury College in June when somebody at dinner said, “Funny, I saw more deer on the journey here than insects splattered on my windshield.” He had driven 200 miles through farmlands to Vermont.

It reminded me of a 75% decline of insect populations over the past thirty years in German nature reserves. The news might be welcome if they were only the biting and stinging kinds, but the list included butterflies, wild bees, and dragonflies. The survey was more striking for being in nature reserves! Unfortunately, they are not strictly reserved for nature because pesticides drift from nearby fields, and climate is shifting everywhere. There are also reports that insects are less common in Spain and Britain, and that reminds me of struggles to keep honey bees here in Virginia.

Mountain mint

Discouraged by the loss of two colonies last year, I put my labor into growing more pollinator-friendly plants instead. Mountain mint is currently my favorite. I am happy to see this native plant gradually invade fallow areas of garden because it competes against Japanese stiltgrass that smothers the ground and is inedible to browsing rabbits and deer. The mint has a pleasing odor to attract hundreds of pollinators of many kinds, including bee visitors from an unknown apiary.

I doubt there are many homeowners in the district who are trying to attract bugs. If neighbors knew they might restock their sprays and give their chemical lawns and flower borders an extra coating of toxins to ensure they are sterile. Bugs have few friends, although we make exceptions of butterflies, bees and a few others.

On May 28 the city of Williamsburg recommended a service to residents for fogging their yards, and encouraged the battle by playing up the risk of Zika, malaria, West Nile virus, and Yellow Fever. You might imagine from the announcement we live in a tropical swamp! Meanwhile the US military conducts aerial spraying of its land, sending local beekeepers scurrying to cover their hives. Sprays are no respecters of species; they kill beneficial insects along with mosquitoes.

And yet I hear people ask why friendly insects are less common than in the past. And they wonder about fewer garden birds, bats, and frogs too. Perhaps we can’t have the good without the bad. I will tolerate some bites and stings for the sake of biodiversity, but then what are they to a beekeeper?

It matters if we are facing ‘Insectageddon’ because, at halfway down the food pyramid, many insects provide pollination services. Others eat invertebrates below and/ or provide food for animals and birds above. The environmental writer-activist at the Guardian George Monbiot believes the disappearance of insects caused by modern farming practices and the industrial vacuuming of marine life pose the two greatest existential threats to life on the planet, greater even than climate warming. An alarming warning by Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson has gone viral: “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.”

Getting public attention on bugs is an uphill struggle, except to eliminate them. Since people left farming in droves in the last century for sterile condominiums in cities there are fewer people who notice a difference in the air. And even professional ecologists are more detached from nature if they spend time nerdishly in front of screens. That’s why we need more citizen scientists in the community, those amateurs whose passion takes them outdoors to record observations like naturalists of yore.

For my part, I only have anecdotal stories as a gardener-naturalist, not the quantitative data needed to monitor historical changes in insect populations. I notice fewer fireflies and butterflies in my backyard than 17 years ago. What was then semi-rural is now semi-urban, with all that implies.

But when I took an evening drive last month along country roads in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia I had an experience I used to take for granted, and the memory came back as a jolt. It was like driving through lightly falling snow. The landscape was filled with moths. Is it a coincidence that the area is thinly populated and old farms that fell on hard times have become fallow meadows? By the time I reached home my car was splattered, and I realized it was something to celebrate instead of grumble. It suggested a new project for amateur naturalists to monitor insects from the comfort of their driving seat. The only effort required will be to wipe license plates clean of corpses after recording data in mph (moths per hour).

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