Archive for the ‘Pollinators’ Tag

To Bee or Not to Bee: Are You Pollinator Friendly?

The Minneapolis Parks Foundation provided an enlightening evening Thursday with Dr. Marla Spivak, U of M professor of entomology, more commonly known as the “Bee Lady,” who spoke about the health of bees. Of particular interest was the promotion and maintenance of pollinator-friendly landscapes in our parks and yards.

Bee

The endangered rusty patched bumble bee from the University of Minnesota Bee Lab’s Bee ID website

My guess is that, like me, the couple hundred others in attendance at the Walker left the event calculating how to convert some or all of their yards into more pollinator-friendly habitat. Dr. Spivak is that convincing. She has the rare ability to explain problems and identify solutions without bombast, exaggeration or condescension. It is an ability that I associate with top-level scientists who seem more able than most of us to sift fact from emotion, opinion or belief. If you missed her on Thursday, please look for other opportunities to hear Dr. Spivak speak.

One of her comments stood out in a park-history context. She noted the value of cottonwood trees in maintaining healthy bee colonies. The resin that coats the leaf buds has beneficial properties for bees.

Eastern_Cottonwood_(Populus_deltoides)_-_Flickr_-_Jay_Sturner_(2)

That led me to think of the creeks that flowed through the unbroken prairies of a couple centuries ago and the fact that one of the trees most commonly found along those creeks was cottonwood. To prove the point, the cottonwood is the state tree of Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming!  (A few huge cottonwoods can be found along Minnehaha Creek.) The tree was disappointing to many early settlers because it was not particularly useful for humans other than as a provider of shade. It didn’t burn well and wasn’t much good for lumber — much like the elm! — but it also outgrew and shaded-off trees considered more desirable. The disadvantage of the cottonwood compared to the elm, especially in an urban setting, is that it is messy. The “cotton” that carries the seeds can be annoying and, to use one of Theodore Wirth’s favorite words from a century ago, “unsightly.” I know because I have to sweep a pile of “cotton” out of my garage and dislodge it from my porch screens every summer. It can be a nuisance.

The specific connection to park history? In January 1905 the park board passed a new set of ordinances. Among them was one that prohibited the planting of cottonwood and box elder trees along Minneapolis streets!

I presume the cottonwood was banned for its profusion of clingy cotton seeds. The box elder was banned because of the black and red box elder bugs that lived in it. (There was a box elder tree across the alley from my boyhood home in St. Paul and I can confirm that the bugs were unpleasant.)

I have no idea when — or if — the 1905 ordinance was ever rescinded. The relevance of the ordinance to the discussion of bee health today is that of unintended consequences. I’m sure that no one in 1905 knew of the importance of cottonwood trees to the health of pollinators and our food supply. Did that ordinance contribute to the long-term decline in pollinators described by Dr. Spivak? Now we know to think of such contingencies.

My intent is not to disparage those who passed an ordinance 115 year ago, but to underscore our constant increase in knowledge and understanding of the world and the interconnectedness of things. I am grateful to people like Dr Spivak who expand our understanding and allow us to improve our world in ways that generations before us could not have done because they didn’t know what we know. We need to listen more to people who actually know stuff.

To learn more on the subject of bees and pollinator-friendly habitat visit the websites of the Bee Lab and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

A final word: the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has a professional staff that has long been committed to protecting the environment and improving management of our city’s natural resources. I think they do remarkable work and have for nearly 140 years — even as knowledge has increased, management techniques have evolved, and public perceptions and desires have shifted. That’s why we have the park system we have. To suggest otherwise is simply ignorant and I question the motives of those who do. (I’m not as tactful as Dr. Spivak; she’s a MacArthur Fellow and I’m not!) I applaud Tom Evers, Executive Director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, for praising park board staff in his introduction of Thursday night’s program.

David Carpentier Smith