The Plight of the Bumblebee

An important, albeit unfortunate, historical event was marked recently with the official recognition of the Rusty-patched Bumblebee as an endangered species in the United States. So very rare, Bombus affinis now is found only in about 1/10th of 1% of its original range. This designation is historical for a second reason in that it is the first native Bumblebee in the United States to be declared endangered. Before this, as for bee species, only seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees have been so listed.

There has been much coverage over the past several years regarding the issues being faced by Honeybees. And while we do not want to diminish their human-induced importance to the production of food crops, the Western (aka European) Honeybee (Apis mellifera) is not native to North America, having its origins across the Atlantic in Western Asia, Africa and Europe. Our continent is well represented in the bee world with approximately 4000 native species – the image here gives you an idea of the range in size. Why in New York State alone we lay claim to over 450, many of them being one of several tiny Sweat Bee species. Our native bees can be “loners” or live in small colonies. BeeSizeRangeAs for shelter, they may be ground nesting or use wood for making their homes. Keep in mind that before the arrival of Europeans to this continent, our endemic bees, along with their innumerable pollinating moth, butterfly, spider, ant, wasp and fly cousins, did a fine job ensuring the continued propagation of plants across North America.  In fact, some studies suggest that native bees do a better job at pollinating than do the alien honeybees1 and contribute approximately $3 billion to the agricultural economy each year. Additionally, because these species have evolved here for millennia, they are far hardier and less susceptible to disease, pests and weather.

Protecting our native bee populations has never been more important. The listing of the Rusty-patched is a bellwether for its protégées and, given the grave issues that abound with the alien honeybee, we may need to rely far more heavily on our indigenous friends. Among the many pressures threatening their existence are habitat loss, climate change, invasive plants species (less nutritional food), and the use of neonicotinoid-based chemicals commonly found in homes, schools, and farms. There are many simple ways you can help in this regard, some making great projects for kids, families and community groups. Below are links to suggested projects and actions to support these important pollinators. Please feel free to share your success stories through our Facebook or Twitter feeds!

  1. Danforth Labs: http://www.danforthlab.entomology.cornell.edu/pollination-biology.html

Dry Winter, Dry Spring, Dry Summer

Erie County (NY) is officially in a severe drought.  With record low snows this past Winter, an unusually dry Spring and nearly rainless Summer, Erie County, especially the metropolitan ring of Buffalo, is experiencing some of the driest conditions in over 75 years. For the Spring/Summer season thus far, we are down 7 inches in precipitation with no relief in site for the foreseeable future.  While we do have a nice big lake to our west, many folks in our region rely upon well water.

Wild Black Raspberries

Moreover, this drought is extremely stressful for plants and, therefore, animals. On The Acre, we usually tend to the “formal” flower beds and vegetables (very conservatively, mind you) and leave the naturalized areas to fend for themselves. But the newer natives put in for habitat restoration are having a very difficult time of it so we’re beginning to irrigate small patches in order that some survive into future seasons. Even the well-established wild raspberries are in rough shape. These small, dry fruits are all we’ll harvest this year, choosing to leave the paltry remains for wildlife, giving them another source of moisture. The berries testify to the intensity of this drought – we usually harvest about 5 pounds each year and leave 5 times that much for wildlife.

Perhaps it’s time to open the sacred fire pit and start a rain ceremony. Ah, but it would be fool-hardy to have a fire in such dry conditions. Starlight and song will have to do…

Wild Plant Foraging and Prepartion

Along with our partners at the historic Roycroft Campus, we’re offering a 2-part program on ethical foraging and use of wild plants. Click the graphic below for details.

Roycroft_Foraging

Insect Pests? No such thing…

So many wild species struggle to survive in the face of human activity. Serious population declines over the last half century should instill fear in every human heart – we need these wild animals for our own survival.

  • 76% population decline in freshwater species
  • 70% decline in seabird populations
  • 68% loss of common birds in the United States
  • 40% of terrestrial populations lost worldwide
  • 40% worldwide loss in marine species

Humans, by-and-large, disdain insect and arachnid species, either fearing them or labeling them as pests. Reasons are, for the most part, based in ignorance of the value these animals provide. We call these ecosystem services and natural capital, functions rooted in Nature upon which Homo sapiens depend for our own lives.  Some of these, like the water cycle, are obvious to us – although we still foolishly complain when it rains. Also trees often get lots of credit for their oxygen production, however, when allowed to form a forest, trees up the ante on the services and capital we rely upon – erosion and flood control, water purification, lumber and paper products, etc., etc.

Insects, Spiders and other such animal species, however, do not get much credit for anything other than being “pesty”.  When one considers the full web of life, it does not take long to realize that these invertebrates are critical to all life on Earth. I might even risk saying that they are second only to plants in importance, which explains why they vastly outnumber all other animal species.

This 1st and 2nd place rating is no coincidence. Without plants, no animal eats – none of them. All food is based in the plant world – and many, many plants greatly depend upon insects in order to reproduce, be it through direct pollination services or the protection certain invertebrate species provide to plants.  Consider that approximately 75% of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators to reproduce. Of the over 200,000 species of animals who perform pollination services, 99.5% of them are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths, or spiders.

Clearly we must educate ourselves on these essential animals.  We need them or Homo sapiens becomes extinct.  The factors that threaten invertebrates are far more than just fear and disdain. While we directly target some for annihilation with chemicals, others are being threatened by our use of resources – habitat loss, pollution (air/water/ chemical) and climate change being the top factors.

And our best-loved insects, the Butterflies, are not immune to humans’ insatiable use and misuse of natural resources. A recent study states that the Monarch Butterfly, an icon of Nature’s beauty, may be only 20 years from extinction. Why? Habitat loss in both its Winter and Summering grounds (they Summer and reproduce in Western New York), pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are the reasons.

And let’s think about those devaViceroyButterlfy_inHandstating population numbers above.  What is the link to the invertebrate world? Many of these animal populations feed upon invertebrates, be it the adults, larvae and/or eggs. Mosquitoes are a favorite food of both birds and freshwater animals. Is it any wonder there is a rise in Mosquito-borne disease recently? The interconnectivity of Nature is still a mystery and we need to understand these complex relationships as they relate to our own behaviors and use of the natural world.

What can you do to help reverse such trends? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Become knowledgeable about insects and spiders. Learn what services they perform that eventually trickle down to our own survival. And remember, the vast majority of these species pose no harm to you.
  • Put the chemicals and fly-swatters away. First, it is a losing battle – their numbers are too great and many evolve quickly to survive chemical applications. Instead, make sure your screens are tight and intact, turn off lights near windows and doors, use natural repellents (like citronella, cloves and lemon balm).
  • Create wildlife habitat, especially for those native pollinators in peril. All of Nature will benefit – see http://oakmossed.com/garden.php for lots of information on environmentally sound gardening, native plants and our invertebrate friends.

The future of Planet Earth is literally in our hands now. Our actions and failure to act will not only dictate the further existence of wild animals and plants, but our own existence, as well.

Sources:

Upcoming Lecture at ECC South Campus

JohnVolpeLecture_ECCMar2016

Erie Community College South Campus is located at 4140 Southwestern Blvd. in Orchard Park, NY. Email grahamm@ecc.edu with for further information.

Bird of the Year – 2016

There is a sweet tradition that holds the first bird sighted on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year, one which will share its lessons and inspire you both intellectually and spiritually. This year, the Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor) has taken on the role of Bird of the YeaTuftedTitmouser for me after an early morning sighting on January 1st. Personal experience has demonstrated that our fellow species, be they plant or animal, can teach us much about life and I look forward to learning more from the Tufted Titmouse as 2016 progresses.

Below is some of the information I’ve gathered thus far and will continue to decipher how this small songbird will enrich my life with its presence. I’ll share these insights with you later in in the year.

  • More known for its “peter-peter-peter” song than its appearance, the Tufted Titmouse is a small, jaunty passerine (5 to 6″) whose behaviors are interesting to observe.
  • Males and females look alike, although some research suggests that the black forehead patch may be slightly larger on dominant males. Beyond that, one will have to spend some time in observation and listening as the males are the producers of the boisterous “peter” song while females are the primary nest sitters.
  • Although an inquisitive species, Tufted Titmice are a bit less social with humans than their cousins the Black-capped Chickadee, who can be hand-fed after coaxing.
  • Titmice form limited families in that young remain with their parents through the first Winter and sometimes help raise the next season’s brood.
  • Male Titmice strongly defend their territories and their small Winter flocks have an “alpha” male of sorts who will drive off “alien” males who attempt to join the assembly.
  • Being a woodland species, Tufted Titmice are less likely to take up residence in open field next boxes as they prefer not to fly across open spaces.
  • The Tufted Titmouse uses tree cavities for both nesting and roosting. However, they do not excavate their own cavities but, instead, use existing ones. Use of nest boxes is mixed among birders who monitor them.
  • “TT” raises one brood of 5 to 8 youngsters per season. They will include human hair in nest materials but it should be cropped short as longer strands may tangle around the legs of baby birds.
  • Its range is moving northward, likely in conjunction with a changing climate.
  • Although heard often in the woodlands, the Tufted Titmouse rarely visits my backyard feeders in Summer and is almost exclusively seen on the property after the formation of Winter flocks in late Autumn (which include Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees and Nuthatches). It is a non-migratory species.
  • Can hang upside down on branches in search of arthropods hidden beneath bark.

Find your own “Bird of the Year” and enjoy the many pleasures and wisdom of these feathered friends!

Autumnal Program Offerings 2015

Early Autumn LakeSustainable lifestyles, Indigenous ecology and understanding wild things encompass our Autumn schedule of public programming. We hope you’ll join us for one or more of our offerings as we welcome the Season of Change!

Cultural Ecology of the Haudenosaunee
Thursday, October 22
12:00 noon to 1:00pm
Erie Community College
South Campus – Orchard Park
A discussion and demonstrations on how the People of the Long House (Haudenosaunee/Iroquois), and in particular the Onödowa’ga:’ (Seneca), modeled their civilization upon the cycles, rhythms and systems of Earth through ceremony, food, medicine and recreation. This is a FREE presentation.
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Autumn Amble
Saturday, October 24
10:00am to 1:00pm
18 Mile Creek Park – Hamburg
A leisurely interpretive hike concentrating on how both critters and plants prepare for the coming Winter.
register

 

Earthly Cleaning
Thursday, November 5
6:00pm to 8:30pm
Springville Griffith High School
A workshop focused on creating home-made, environmentally friendly cleaning prepartions for household use.
register

 

Herbal Crafts for Gift-Giving
Sunday, November 8
1:00pm to 4:00pm
Roycroft Campus – East Aurora
A hands-on demonstration of several lovingly crafted herbal treats for body and mind perfect for the holidays.
register

 

Wild Bird Care for Winter
Tuesday, November 17
7:00pm to 9:00pm
Roycroft Campus – East Aurora
Learn some easy steps and projects you can make that birds will appreciate, allowing you to discover more about their behaviors as they find your property a very hospitable place to visit.

register