Published in the Toronto Star September 3, 2016
“Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.” ~Bradley Millar
The bees are changing everything.
Time was “a garden” consisted of a lawn, framed by sweeping beds of perennials, evergreens and flowers – oh the flowers! – broad beds of monochromatic colour without a break in the line. Military precision was used when planting, nurturing and indeed the hybridizing of them all. It started with petunias and by the late 70’s the market was dominated by impatiens. By the mid 80’s, 60% of all annual flowers sold in Canada were impatiens. Today it is near 0% (for the traditional ‘walleriana’ varieties).
Granted, the proliferation of downy mildew helped to bring the popularity of impatiens to an end, but their demise was in sight anyway.
Thank the bees.
The bees have changed the way that we look at gardens forever. With the news that honey bees have been in decline for some time, a nerve has been struck in the hearts of every gardener across the country. “What? Lose the bees? That would mean ‘no honey’!” and so the discussion began.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that Kew Gardens in the U.K., the venerable grand-daddy of all botanical gardens, has opened a special exhibit called The Hive. This giant interpretation of a beehive highlights the essential role that bees and insects worldwide play in pollinating plants and thus, “Helping to feed the planet.” (editorial, Kew Magazine).
The exhibit features a soaring 17 meter (55 ft) high aluminum structure that consists of over 17,000 moving parts. It ‘comes alive’ with ever-changing lighting and sound intended to imitate the sound of a busy bee hive. This special exhibit won the gold prize for Architecture and Landscape when it was featured at the Milan Expo last year.
As Richard Deverell, Director of Kew explains, “We want to tempt people to visit who, perhaps, have never visited a botanic garden before and simply don’t see any reason to do so. This requires us to do bold and ambitious things that get noticed. This includes food security – how we ensure our rapidly growing and ever-hungry human population has access to sufficient supplies of food.”
Around the ‘Hive’ they have planted 34 native wildflower species and three different species of ornamental grasses, which flower over the summer and autumn. The wildflower garden is surrounded by a hedge made up of 6 native evergreen species.
This multi million dollar commitment, made on the part of Kew, tells us a lot about what resonates with people today. I suggest that the popularity of the ‘pollinator’ message is not unique to the U.K. Canadians are interested in planting native flowering plants, attracting pollinators to the garden and installing insect and bee habitat in their yards with great enthusiasm. The only trend that may be greater is that of ‘food gardening’. These topics are related as 30% of our food requires insect pollination.
Truth is, all of us can make a positive impact on the world of pollinators. Here in Canada, there are over 700 native bee species. The honey bee is not one of them, as it is a European import. Here in Toronto, there are over 200 native bee species, most of them non-aggressive (ie. they won’t sting unless provoked) and many are more effective as pollinators than the honey bee.
At home you can do your part by planting more pollinator flowers, installing a water feature and adding insect and bee habitats in your yard.
There is another national initiative in the U.K. that flags our general concern for bees: Grow Wild. This is the biggest ever wildflower campaign in the U.K, “Bringing people together to transform their local neglected spaces using native, pollinator-friendly wildflowers and plants.” according to the Grow Wild website. It is funded in part by the Big Lottery Fund and the program has been responsible for planting more than 3.5 million square meters with wildflowers.
Where did this idea come from? Since the 1930’s, there has been a 97 per cent loss of wildflower meadows in the U.K. I imagine that the discussion started there.
How much of our ‘wild flower meadows’ have we lost in Canada in recent years?
Is it possible that we can replace much of it through a grass-roots lead effort to re-claim open, public spaces, like hydro corridors, in an effort to attract pollinators? Are there lottery funds or government grants available to help us do this? Are there people with energy and commitment enough to get the job started?
I think that our own botanical gardens could lead this charge and, to a degree, they are.
Let me know what you think. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.