Panic in Bloom

Bees are dying. So are moths. And every other kind of pollinator. No pollinators means no flowers, no fruit, no nuts. Is this the end of the world as we know it?


Part 7: It’s Quite Simple, Really

For Marcie O’Connor, there’s nothing nano about it. She and her husband bought a 450-acre farm in western Wisconsin, not too far from Pepin, and when the kids went off to college began “unfarming” it, restoring it to its native blend of prairie and savannah. Before that, when O’Connor was raising her children in St. Paul, the former botany major converted her front yard into prairie and her backyard into woods. They had a cabin on the St. Croix, and she restored its shoreline to native wetland.

“My idea of what’s beautiful correlates to what’s alive,” she says. “A lawn to me is a dead thing. You don’t see any bugs. You don’t see any dragonflies. You don’t see anything. When you have a prairie it’s constantly moving. There are moths, butterflies, flies, dragonflies, and all the birds who eat the bugs. People don’t understand that birds are utterly dependent on native bugs and native seeds.”

O’Connor documents her unfarm-ing at aprairiehaven.com. One day in July she counted 465 Baltimore checkerspot butterflies. She has put her “unfarm” in a land trust, so that it will always be a haven for native species. “It’s really rewarding, really fun,” says O’Connor. “I think we’ve reached a point in thinking about the environment where we need to realize saving the eagles is great, but what about everything that’s not the eagles? If you save the habitat, you save everything.”

Some 75 percent of everything is in grave danger, and you could fix it, by a little understanding and appreciation of the less cuddly parts of the environment.

O’Connor also has a condo in Falcon Heights, and she worked with the board to return some of the condo’s farther-flung grounds to native prairie and wetland. Now everywhere O’Connor goes there are butterflies on blooms, and sometimes foxes, luna moths, and scarlet tanagers.

Can it be that simple? Yes and no. To get a few hundred million people to recognize a crisis and act together to reverse it doesn’t often happen. But it could.

“There’s a lot of fatalism out there,” notes Spivak, who has been watching the issue of colony collapse disorder unspool over the last decade, while the wild bees and other unsexy pollinators collapse publicity-free. “But if everybody would just plant flowers, as many as you can, just grow organic bee food, every bit would help. A little pot of flowers on your doorstep is not enough to support a whole colony of bees, but a whole neighborhood filled with pots might be. If everybody does a little, collectively, it would be a big help. We need to stop thinking of ourselves at every turn.”

We think of ourselves even when we’re not thinking of ourselves, with our culturally-passed-down, unconscious values of how a yard should look and which flowers express love. “We breed flowers to be pretty to us,” says Spivak. “But a bee can’t get into a Valentine’s Day rose. Bees need native flowers. We’ve decided we need monocultures of corn, of soybeans, of lawn. For some reason anything we grow we want edge-to-edge only that thing. Why can’t we go back to diversified agriculture? Why can’t there be some places for flowers? It’s time for a correction. The bees are indicating that with their death.” Look out the window. This is the Anthropocene, and you’re living in it. Some 75 percent of everything is in grave danger, and you could fix it, by a little understanding and appreciation of the less cuddly parts of the environment and planting or encouraging the planting of some poison-free native flowers.

The moths and butterflies and bees can’t tweet. They can only flap and buzz. And to really get a point across they fall over dead. But if their point is neither amusing nor on the cover of Rolling Stone, can we hear it? ■

For further reading: See Mpls.St.Paul senior writer Steve Marsh's profile of U of M entomologist Dr. Marla Spivak 



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