The butterfly effect

Preserving pollinators and getting a little bit wild

Whenever I see a butterfly, I stop and watch. My heart flutters with a sense of childlike excitement, but also something bigger, something that feels like hope. Because when I think of monarchs, the iconic butterfly around these parts, I think of their population surge in 2019 after their numbers had plunged 90% in the previous two decades. I think of all the milkweed I see around my neighbourhood — not the prettiest plant, and one with “weed” actually in the name, but one people are planting it in their yards nonetheless. Though monarch numbers are down again in 2020 (fluctuating temperatures are a big factor), last year’s monarch recovery is a beautiful example of what people will do with clear instructions and when motivated by something they love.

Pollinators — including hummingbirds, wasps, moths, flies, and bees, that other poster child for pollination — are not only beautiful and part of a healthy ecosystem, but essential to the food we eat. This year, researchers found that in B.C. and farms across America five crops were consistently underpollinated, leading to yields that were up to 30% lower. Lower yields not only mean less food and less income for farmers, if a trend like this continues, it means we’ll need more agricultural land to feed ourselves, which often leads to deforestation (a top climate change baddie). A 2006 study of global food crops found that pollinators are vital for 13 crops, very useful for 30, moderately so for 27, slightly useful for 21, and unimportant for 7. Some crops (like grains) are wind pollinated, so while we wouldn’t starve without bees and their buds, our diet would be severely restricted until the robot bees are ready.

And while some farmers, notably the almond farmers of California, can get by with importing or introducing honeybees, they’re not well suited for all crops. One of the 800 other species of wild bees in Canada might be the right fit for the job. Sometimes honeybees can even be damaging — a recent meta-study found domesticated bees outcompeting their wild brethren for food.

We need strong, resilient ecosystems to survive the escalating stresses of the climate crisis. We need food. We need moment of wonder. So let’s look at how we can help support the critters that are supporting us.

Plant for pollinators

One of the main threats to bees and butterflies these days is simply lack of habitat, something that’s pretty easy (and fun) to help remedy.

If you have a patch of earth, or influence at a school, church, business, etc., one of the best things you can do is plant native perennial species. While there are lots of annuals that pollinators love (and I grow them too), native perennials are adapted for our climate and, like all perennial plants, are carbon sinks, drawing CO2 out of the air and into their roots. They’re also low maintenance. In Southern Ontario, some easy winners are:

  • goldenrod (which people think is an allergen — it rarely is — and is considered a weed by some, but it is the best herbaceous plant for pollinators, supporting 114 species! It will spread, but it’s pretty easy to rip out or, better yet, dig up and give to a friend)

  • New England aster

  • bee balm

  • anise hyssop (currently the pollinator HOT SPOT in my patch of ground)

  • purple coneflower

  • black-eyed or brown-eyed Susan

  • Solomon’s seal

  • milkweed (where the butterflies lay their eggs and the only food source for hatching caterpillars, thus it’s become a big focus: shout out to the David Suzuki Foundation’s perfectly named #gotmilkweed campaign)

Ideally you want something blooming spring through fall, so there’s always a food source available, and planting in groups of minimum three plants can make them more visible. The Toronto Master Gardeners have an excellent chart (scroll to the bottom of the page) outlining native and non-native plants by their bloom times (and they’ve handily highlighted shade tolerant species). Come spring, add some of these native plants to your garden for low-maintenance beauty with big ecosystem benefits.

If you’re a more experienced gardener who already has this down pat, why not offer up some plant divisions or raise some seedlings next year? One of the many beautiful things about plants is how easy they can be to share.

To offer a five-star experience, add a pollinator watering hole: a shallow dish with a couple of rocks in it for landing on. Change the water every few days. It won’t just support bees, but other beneficial insects like ladybugs.

Mess is best

Sometimes, amazingly, doing the right thing for the planet means doing less work! Generally letting your yard go a little more wild can have huge ecosystem benefits, plus you’ll have more time just to sit and enjoy it. A few ways you can get laissez-faire about your patch of earth:

  • cut your lawn less often, especially when flowers like dandelions or clover are blooming (dandelions are a good food source for just-emerged pollinators).

  • in fall, if the leaves aren’t piled too thickly, skip raking and let them be the natural mulch and fertilizer they are, not to mention homes for overwintering bugs. You can also rake leaves onto your garden beds to help protect tender plants from sub-zero temps. If the leaves are really piling up, try running them over with the lawn mower, so they’ll break down more easily come spring. (Some mowers have mulch attachments that work best for this.)

  • in spring, don’t rake or “clean up” until nighttime temperatures are over 10 degrees Celsius consistently. Most non-migrating butterflies overwinter in leaves as pupae, so this gives them and other beneficial insects time to wake up. (This is difficult, I’ll admit, when spring fever hits: but even if you clear the area around a few early bulbs, leave the rest.)

  • let plants bolt / go to seed. This not only means you’ll end up with lots of seed (enough to share!), all those flowers give insects another food source. Sometimes it also means bonus harvests (like tender radish pods, which can be far more productive than the root itself) and brings a distinctly Seussian garden aesthetic.

  • rethink your lawn, and consider replacing it with a bio lawn of plants or simply adding some clover, which is drought-resistant and fertilizes the soil.

  • leave a bare patch of soil for ground-nesting bees and other beneficial insects.

  • if you don’t have a corner where you haphazardly dump your extra brush like I do, consider collecting a pile of twigs and hollow stemmed plants and bundling or piling them up for some bee habitat (cheaper and better than any man-made bee house).

Buy organic and regenerative when you can

We’ve already talked about the pros and cons of organic agriculture (check it out if you missed it), but one thing solidly on the pros side is that less spraying of pesticides and herbicides is better for pollinators. They’re already dealing with problems like warming temperatures, droughts, disease, and loss of habitat, they don’t really need to add frequent doses of sub-lethal poison into the mix. Organic and/or regenerative farmers are also more likely to leave perimeter flowers that support pollinators.

I realize it’s not a great time for new plantings, but right now is an ideal time to simply sit outside and appreciate the pollinators we have. Watch closely, challenge yourself to spend five minutes just watching any insect that moves in a garden or park near you. It’s a meditation even little kids can try. One of my most exciting moments this year was discovering two Nessus sphinx moths visiting some wild dame’s rocket in the garden. These amazing creatures look like the love child of a bee and a hummingbird. Nature still routinely amazes me.

In one Indigenous creation story, mother of creation Sky Woman had twins that chased after butterflies. This, says Dorothy Taylor of Curve Lake First Nation, “gave them the strength to start being fascinated, to open their eyes to the world around them.” May we all remember to do the same.

A preservation P.S.

A quick follow-up to last week’s food preservation extravaganza: just after I sent out the newsy last week, I watched this talk from Linda Black Elk, the food sovereignty skills coordinator at United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota. If you’re at all interested in drying as a preservation method, she will blow your mind. Her enthusiasm is so energizing, and if she doesn’t inspire you to preserve something I don’t know who will. Drying kale on the dashboard of your car! Hand spiralizing a zucchini for drying! Drying green beans (or, as Dolly Parton would call them, “leather britches”)! Dried sauerkraut and kimchi! As Linda says, “You can dry ANYTHING!”

Wins of the Week

“All flourishing is mutual.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (a book I highly recommend!)

Shout out to the efforts of these busy bees this week:

  • I bought a second-hand (and very reasonably priced) Vitamix blender on Kijiji. Now I can make my own oat milk (which, you may remember from the coffee newsletter way back when, is the plant milk with the lowest footprint) and blend greens into my smoothies, which I’m stoked about. I didn’t have to wait long: after about two weeks of setting a posting alert, I found my forever blender.

  • Carey wrote to tell me about her gardening wins: carrots, beets, and kale (some of which gets frozen for winter in her glorious deep freeze, along with strawberries and rhubarb — I have freezer envy). But we also talked about canning, and she brought up some lovely family traditions of growing and preserving food, which had me thinking about how these admittedly labour-intensive activities can really deepen our connection to our food and to each other. It brought back bittersweet memories of finding my grandmother’s last batch of strawberry freezer jam as we packed up her house — perhaps the most precious preserve of my life. Here’s a bit of Carey’s story, which she has allowed me to share:

Growing up in the country, my grandmother and my mother always had veggie and flower gardens, and did lots of canning. My grandmother had a raspberry patch, we’re talking an epic jungle for three-year-old me, and so there was always jam and frozen berries in her deep freeze. . . .

My mom considered gardening exercise, as she had a huge plot and grew everything she could. Canning was mainly pickles: bread and butter pickles, pickled beets, and pickled spicy green beans. I went into withdrawal on the green beans when I moved to Toronto and sometimes she would bring me a sealed Ziploc full in her luggage when she came to visit. Now I get the fresh beans from the farmers’ market (again, quantity is an issue as we don’t have the same kind of space she did on the farm) and pickle some for gifts every year. I usually do one other thing, maybe a peach chutney or bourbon cherries or something like that, to give as gifts through the fall and winter. Always a hit.

I hope more of us find the occasion to fill our luggage with produce, to give food lovingly grown or prepared. I love to hear your wins and your stories, so hit reply, comment, or get in touch.

To see us out, here’s an adorable little honeybee, bathing itself like a cat:

Until next week, my friends!