The old “man’s best friend” adage may be in need of a serious reassessment. If you’re convinced that the family’s furry familiar may indeed be your most trusted ally, there’s another creature that you may wish to endow with this status. Largely unnoticed by most, and routinely violated by their human neighbors, the honey bee holds the future of mankind in its tiny tarsal claws … literally!

Surprisingly similar to our canine cohabitants, these European expats share a good number of human behaviors and characteristics. Many are aware of the ‘social’ leanings of hive life, but did you know that honey bees dance, differentiate between human faces, and possess distinct personality types? Research also indicates that bee ‘individuals’ are biased toward going either right or left. After years of observing my husband’s bee-keeping duties in our own garden, I’ve long abandoned any regard for bees as mere insects.

If you’re still struggling to muster warm feelings for a venomous insect, ponder this. Close to 75% of the flowering plants of our earth rely on honey bees, and other native pollinators in order to set fruit or seed. Simply stated, 1/3 of mankind’s food comes from these same plants. Nature has vested these tiny pollinators, with the lofty commission of assuring the perpetuation of life itself on our planet.

Humans, animals, plant life and insects, intertwined in a symbiotic alliance for mutual survival, now stand at a collectively critical juncture. The pollinators, which include bumblebees, honeybee colonies, insects and butterflies have lost vast amounts of habitat to dense urbanization, and the short-sighted practice of coercing agriculture through chemical-genetic tampering.

The disappearance of insect pollinators would exact an inconceivable toll on our personal lives, and world that is difficult to comprehend. Apples, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries and vegetables, just to name a few, would all disappear. In the Pacific Northwest alone the combined value of pollinator dependent crops is 3+ billion dollars. Blueberries, cranberries, vegetables, flowers and alfalfa all require pollination. Biofuel crops such as sunflower and canola and the fiber crops of cotton and flax all need these benign visitors. Across America and the world, many state and national economies depend on the natural pollination provided by the insect sector.

Fortunately, the alarm has been heeded, as wildlife biologists, botanists, and pollinator conservationists have networked in a global effort to protect and nurture native pollinators. Many home gardeners have likewise become local ambassadors for this time-sensitive cause. All concerned agree on one obvious and singular solution, the creation and expansion of native habitats.

The protection of natural ecosystems, while favoring native plants for new landscape projects and agriculture will surely attract beneficial insect populations capable of thriving within a sanctuary environment. Whether a balcony, city park, school campus, farm or small urban backyard, each and every plot predominated by native plantings becomes an integral component in a renewed and viable ecology. Landscaping with native plants, verses hybridized ornamental plants will derive amazing benefits. Just as villages once merged to become cities to eventuate in an undistinguishable sprawl, the natural landscape can similarly be recreated.

– Native plants are 4 times more likely than non-native plants to attract bees.
– Native plant genera support 3 times as many species of butterflies and moths.
– Native woody plants as landscape ornamentals support 14 times as many species.

These findings alone, but especially within a context of larger global consequences, have become both inspiration and motivation for many to modify and diversify their overall plan in the garden. Here are a few of the additional advantages when using native plants:

1. The promotion of local native biological diversity.
2. Many are ‘deer resistant’.
3. Less water requirements than the non-native plants.
4. Most do not require fertilizers.
5. The need for pesticides is eliminated, or greatly reduced.
6. Natives provide shelter and food for other wildlife.
7. Non-natives more readily become ‘invasive’.
8. Natives have adapted over time to the climate and conditions of their origin, allowing for a hardier, more robust landscaping.
9. Natives are more drought and weed resistant.

Taking action, however modest, is cumulative, so consider a few basic requirements to do your part without delay: First, provide an abundant flowering area, utilizing native plants where the pollinators can forage. Choosing plants that bloom at different times extends their feeding schedule. Secondly, create an area free of pesticides. Last, plant suitable host plants or nests where they can lay their eggs. Bundles of hollow stems and/or hanging wooden nest blocks are valuable tools in an urban area.

Prior to planting, whether with seeds or starts, do your best to eliminate weeds and/or dormant weed seeds. A bit of pre-planning with the placement of a heavy cardboard, or newspaper ground cover for several months will eventually smother potential competitors eliminating the need for tilling, or chemicals. As your new plants begin to reveal themselves they will have a clear and healthy garden bed in which to grow.

Spring is upon us, and my personal garden is now awash with gloriously-scented plum blossoms amidst the deep hum from a myriad of pollinators. I recently took a moment to sit under the fragrant boughs, and marveled at the incredible variety of industrious workers animating the air above me. Lightly landing butterflies in whites, yellow and brown, bumblebees, honeybees, miniature bees, very small flies and varieties of other insects that I have yet to identify all added to an ambiance of absolute enchantment. No space is too small, and the preservation of life for future generations begins in your personal garden.

‘The hum of the bees is the voice of the garden’ ~ Elizabeth Lawrence

Deborah Lando writes the weekly gardening column for the Triplicate, a daily newspaper serving the northern California-southern Oregon coastal region. As a longtime nursery owner, and overseer of Alfa Vedic Botanical Gardens, Deborah still finds time to teach gardening classes from basics to master level, and shares her substantial knowledge in organic gardening practices and garden Feng Shui.