How Cities Can Offer Better Habitat than Rural Areas

Honeybees are not the only ones in trouble–bumblebees are too. This is the second of a two part series that discusses how urban areas might be bumblebees’ and other native bees’ best chance for survival. Part one is here.  

In City and Country

Leafcutter Bee

The morning of June 19th, before leaving for a retreat, I went out in my urban, Chicago-area backyard to see how the bees were doing. I do this nearly every day, spring through fall, several times a day if I’m at home and working on gardening chores. Warm, with a light breeze, the sun lighting up the flowering plants–it was perfect pollinator weather. Sure enough, back towards the alley, in an area perhaps 10’x20’, a couple of bumblebees were assembled at the spiderwort, honeybees and carpenter bees browsed the nepeta, and at least two other species cruised the coreopsis and the raspberries. I also saw a leafcutter bee and quite a few minute creatures resting on leaves, their golden or green metallic abdomens gleaming, that could be bee or wasp or flower fly. There were also assorted hover flies, wasps and a few butterflies. In my yard, this is completely normal, and what I would expect to see in those conditions.

Later that afternoon a friend and I strolled the retreat property in Putnam County, scouting for bees. Owned and maintained by Illinois Quakers, the twelve acres of grass and mostly native trees such as black walnuts, oaks, ash and maples also include a couple of old field/quasi-prairie areas and remnant hedgerows anchored by some gnarly old osage orange trees. The meetinghouse sits on a slight rise, slight enough that only people from these parts would probably even notice, particularly when the corn is up. Because of extreme spring rains, the corn and soy were not well-grown. You could sit at a picnic table under a maple just southwest of the meetinghouse and look south, southeast and southwest all the way to the horizon. The effect is one of sitting on an island surrounded by a sea of corn and soy, with here and there a distant cluster of farm buildings, metal roofs glimmering in the sun, embraced by their own clusters of trees. The sky, often cluttered with piled-high cumulus clouds, is a dominant element in the composition. To my Midwestern eyes it is restful to be able to see so far, and the contours of the land contain a spare beauty. Visitors from other parts of the world or the U.S., however, find this landscape surprising or even shocking: surprisingly green, open, and flat; shockingly large and uniform.

So, as I said, my friend and I, that first afternoon, patrolled the grounds. We found exactly two bees in a small patch of clover. They looked like some kind of solitary native species but were unfamiliar to me.

At various times during the next four days I would sit at that table, contemplating the landscape and considering this triumph of the industrial farming system that supplies corn and soy to the entire world. Aldo Leopold, in his mid-twentieth century essay “Illinois Bus Ride,” accurately pegs the monotone Illinois landscape and inhabitants’ lack of knowledge regarding the native prairie; the clean-farming practices he describes have only become more predominant since then. I sat with the constant awareness that in those vast fields every single plant as far as the eye could see had doubtless been treated with, among other dangerous chemical products, fungicides and neonicotinoids, and so, virtually every plant in that landscape was toxic to bees. There are vanishingly few refuges.

The common saying goes that every third bite of food is enabled by bees. But what does that really mean? Simply that bees and other pollinators are crucial to the conversion of the sun’s energy into food we can eat. A landscape without pollinators may as well be a dead landscape. It is like a machine missing certain crucial gears that allow it to function: complexity is radically diminished, energy flows depleted, life processes interrupted, and spacial-temporal-energy-matter relationships crucial to ecosystem functioning distorted. A lack of pollinators tears holes in the web of physical and biological relationships that enable the sun’s energy to be converted into matter, i.e. the plant based biological systems that simultaneously embody and power life on earth. The landscape I was viewing was imbued with an ineluctably tragic quality. Sure enough, though during my visit I saw other insect life–a few butterflies, various moths, beetles, flies, mosquitoes and gnats, a dragonfly– I never saw another bee. When I got back home, I immediately went out in the backyard. Bees galore.

These were not-one-time-only experiences or comparisons. I go to that place regularly and am just as regularly struck by the differences between the biodiversity there and in Chicago. This is not to say more biodiverse areas don’t exist in and around Putnam County. A hobby beekeeper of my acquaintance maintains a combination bee meadow/natural area on 30 acres a few miles from from the meetinghouse; Matthiesson and Starved Rock State Parks are fairly close by; the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, a restored area along the Illinois River, lies ten miles away. Yet these are small in comparison with the vast areas of monocropping that prevail there and throughout the state–and the country–an area so large that in seasonal time lapse satellite photos you can see how thousands of square miles of bare brown fields become green in spring and summer. When driving back to Chicago (there is no other way to travel between the two), the experience, paradoxically, is that as the concrete increases, so does biodiversity, so that one has a sense of moving from barrenness into lushness.

 Biodiverse habitat makes a huge difference for bees and native bees seem to be in trouble–or not–depending on where they live. Two studies bear this out. In the first, native bee populations (bumble bees were not included in this study) were counted Carlinville, Illinois. This study compared species counts done in the late 19th century and the 1970’s with the last couple of years. In the 1970’s, 82% of species remained. Since the ‘70’s, the number of species has declined by half. A primary reason seems to have been loss of habitat. Meanwhile, two currently ongoing studies of bees in various habitats (including green roofs) in the Chicago area show that in comparison with a count in the 1930’s, numbers of species (approximately 150) have remained stable, though there is some difference in species between then and now.

What Cities Have: Neglected Acreage and Contiguous Back and Front Yards

A Chicago Neighborhood

My personal experience and these kinds of observations and studies lead me believe that, in North America, at least, cities hold untapped potential as pollinator reserves. Most farmers continue to plow up ever more habitat, remove land from conservation reserve programs and use neonics and other pesticides with abandon. It seems clear that until these farming practices change, it will be up to urbanites, whether in cities, towns or those suburbs that have abandoned the atavistic, pristine-lawn aesthetic, to see to it that our bees survive. With regard to honeybees this situation has been recognized for some years, as the proliferation of urban beekeeping has demonstrated. It is equally important for our native bees. Metro areas really are bees’ last best hope.

Sweet White Clover in Bloom

For one thing, in almost any city, particularly a large, decaying rustbelt city such as Detroit, St. Louis and to lesser extent Chicago, there are hundreds if not thousands of acres of neglected land. It is true that overgrown vacant lots, roadsides too expensive to mow, ramshackle, half-empty neighborhoods and abandoned industrial yards add up to devastating urban blight for sure. Not only that, but these weedy urban areas are an ecologist’s or conservationist’s bad dream, populated as they are with non-native “junk” such as sweet clover, Canadian thistle, sow thistle, chicory, queen Anne’s lace, cow parsley and tansy. No one

Good Habitat

could control all those weeds and invasives and replace them with native plants, much as we might want to. Still, because they are uncontrolled, untilled, unmown, and unsprayed, those areas serve as refugia for pollinators. In Chicago, add that unused acreage to the 11% of Cook County (68,000 acres) of protected forest preserve land and the millions of home gardens, and the city begins to look like and function as a hub of biodiversity that our depauperate countryside can’t match. And I’d bet that bees have increased in Detroit and other cities as the human population has declined, though I have no proof.

Another major advantage of cities and suburbs is that homeowners’ yards are not economic production areas, are not enmeshed in the grim, determinist logic of industrialism. In a way, it is amazing that so many houses in the U.S. have a bit of land attached to them for no other purpose than our enjoyment of same, for leisure, recreation and outdoor life during the summer. We are free to do what we like with them. (Other urban bee habitats are outside the economic edifice by default. Bees could be seen as a little like old-time outlaws and gardening for bees seen as a somewhat subversive act.)

One thing humans like to do is plant flowering trees and shrubs and create flower gardens, which seems only natural, considering that flowers are among the most seductive things on earth, for humans as well as pollinators. We are real suckers for beauty, at which flowers excel. Is this partly because flowers provide a crucial link that keeps the whole enterprise going? By gardening, we provide habitat for pollinators, with whom we and the flowers have co-evolved, on whom we and the flowers depend. So, through our love of beauty we are programmed to help these creatures so much smaller than we are. You could say we have a moral and practical obligation to do so. In short, a garden or miles of small gardens with lots of flowers blooming from early spring through fall is not a luxury, it is a necessity of life.

A Final Rant Plus a Call to Action
I realize that in many places, at present, what I am discussing remains in the realm of the hypothetical, a potential on which to build. There are deep cultural biases to overcome that reflect a century’s worth of propagandizing and intensive marketing by those with a vested interest in selling lawns, hybridized non-native plants, and their accoutrements, including toxic chemicals. It is a symbol of our culture’s apparent death wish that we create landscapes where pollinators either are not invited or are actively shunned. Many Americans expect our flower gardens to be insect-free; gardens which attract birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife are considered, oddly, a special category whereas until the chemical revolution of the mid-twentieth century they were just ordinary gardens.

Neat and Tidy

 Our culture’s concept of gardening is for the most part so out-of-whack and focussed on the chemically and mechanically assisted neat-and-tidy that you can get arrested for growing native plants and homeowners associations have the power to regulate where you can grow flowers, of what kind and how tall they can be. Change will be difficult. After a recent talk I gave, an elementary school teacher told me he would like to establish an educational wild garden, but the school is afraid of liability issues in case someone should get stung who is allergic to bees. And I have heard of several schools where gardens were put in, thrived, provided habitat, and then were taken out at the insistence of parents. (This state of affairs seems symptomatic of a larger, widespread fear of nature, but that is a topic for another time.) However, the potential is there. Even without our doing much to help, city bees are hanging on in ways country bees aren’t.

Mostly Native Plants

We would not have to change our gardening habits that much to create a newly alive landscape. Besides not using insecticides, of vital importance is establishing habitat areas no more than five hundred feet apart to facilitate foraging and nesting. In the country, you might be laughed out of the county if you proposed a return to small, hedgerow-edged fields, or setting aside, say, 30% of a farmer’s land for wildlife habitat. By contrast, in many urban areas, this is a completely obvious and doable proposition. Contiguous city lots are perfectly designed to serve as pollinator corridors. In my neighborhood, lots average 35’x150’ (with variations) and all those yards add up to a great deal of potential habitat. Bees (and birds and butterflies) would use it all. Some species such as honeybees and bumblebees can travel several miles from their hive or nest as they forage. I’ve seen honeybees who have visited my backyard speeding down the alley, loaded with pollen, to return to their hive a block and a half away. I’ve seen carpenter bees fly from across the street to forage in my yard and then return home. I’ve seen bees working the alley weeds when the asiatic day flowers and sowthistle are in bloom. But most bees never travel farther than half a mile from their homes in their lives. For smaller species, that distance can shrink to five hundred feet. It is perfectly possible to have bees in your yard that never leave your or your neighbor’s garden.

We city-dwellers should capitalize on a good thing, should play to our strengths. What I would like to see is yards, blocks and neighborhoods where people choose to make at least part of their property into pollinator-friendly habitat. Every neighborhood should have (and probably already does have) a resident expert or several–folks with good ecological understanding who could help others learn how to garden in a way that is ecologically beneficial, as all gardening should be. Even though so many people have access to land (and even container gardens count as land), many, understandably, don’t have a deep knowledge of how to garden in an ecological fashion, or along the lines of reconciliation ecology. This could be a topic at block parties, community garden events, neighborhood association meetings and transition gatherings. A neighbor and I will be speaking and passing out plant lists at our block party later this month.

Neighbors’ Gardens

It is up to us, all of us who have small patches of land stuck together in blocks and neighborhoods, who talk to our neighbors, who putter around in our yards. We can grow flowers (especially natives), put in spring-blooming shrubs and trees (preferably native), create clover lawns, make sure our vegetable gardens include flower beds, leave some ground undisturbed and resolve not to use insecticides. We can request our city governments and state legislatures to ban at least cosmetic use of neonicotinoids, as the state of Oregon did after 50,000 bumble bees died this spring. And people who care about these things could do some guerrilla gardening. You could, in the fall, make seed bombs with seeds of native plants and scatter them in marginal, weedy areas; some of them might take hold. What you would end up with in this case would be a new, hybrid landscape, but it would serve a useful purpose.

Much education–and action–is needed. City dwellers unite! Go forth and plant flowers!

References: Landscape photos were taken within two miles of my house. Aerial image: B. Shore. Leafcutter bee photo courtesy Heather Holm, Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants. The effects of sub-lethal amounts of pesticides on bumble bees can be found here at Nature, while the Carlinville study (paywall) is at Science. In addition, a shoutout goes to the entomologists who spend their lives studying bees. They and their students have not only furthered the scientific understanding of native bees, but in many cases have done a great deal to educate the public. Our green earth from space can be seen here. The Guardian is a better source for information about bumblebees and neonicotinoids than many American publications, with the exception of Mother Jones where Tom Philpott is on the case. General coverage has increased as such disasters as the recent one in Oregon continue to add up.

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

Related Posts:
A Day in the Country
Strengthening the Biotic Community
Chicago Gardens: The Early History