Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Paul Hetzler: In Praise Of A Messy Yard

western honeybeeOn my twice-monthly drive on Highway 416 between Prescott and Ottawa, I pass the sign for Kemptville, a town of about 3,500 which lies roughly 40 km north of the St. Lawrence. It has a rich history, and no doubt is a fine place to live, but one of these days I need to stop there to verify that Kemptville is in fact a village of surpassing tidiness. (It’s Exit 34 in case anyone wants to take some field notes and get back to me.)

Most of us would prefer not to live in totally unkempt surroundings, but Western culture may have taken sanitation a bit too far. Claims that cleanliness is next to godliness have yet to be proven by science, but research does indicate a neat, well-coiffed landscape is bad for bees and other pollinators.

With all due respect to honeybees, they are seldom required to produce fruits and vegetables. Please don’t spread this around, as I do not want to tarnish their public image. But the fact is that wild bees, along with other insects and the odd vertebrate here and there, do a bang-up job pollinating our crops, provided there are enough types of wild plants (i.e., messiness) around to keep them happy for the rest of the season.

As landscapes become neater and less diverse, wild bees cannot find enough natural foods to keep them in the neighborhood for the few weeks of the year we’d like them to wallow around in our apple or cucumber flowers. In sterile, highly manipulated environments like almond groves and suburban tracts, honeybees are critical.

Dr. Scott McArt, a bee specialist at Cornell’s Dyce Laboratory for Bee Research, says there are an estimated 416 species of wild bees in New York State. When I estimate stuff, the numbers tend to be less exact, such as “more than three,” but I’ve met Dr. McArt, and I trust him on this count. Dr. McArt is quick to point out that wild critters take care of things just fine in most places. He has cataloged exactly 110 species of wild bees visiting apple blossoms in commercial orchards, and in the vast majority of NYS orchards studied, honeybees have no bearing on pollination rates. My object is not to malign honeybees, but to point out that if we learn to live with a bit more unkemptness, we will improve the health of wild bees, wildflowers, food crops, and ourselves in the process.

Messiness also takes pressure off managed honeybees, an increasingly fragile species, by providing them a rich source of wild, non-sprayed nectar and pollen. Orchardists do not spray insecticides when their crops are flowering because they know it will kill bees. But many fungicides, which are not intended to kill insects, are sprayed during bloom. One of the unexpected findings of research done through the Dyce Lab is that non-lethal sprays like fungicides are directly linked with the decline of both wild bees and honeybees. But banning a particular chemical is not a panacea — the situation is far more complex than that. What is needed to save bees of all stripes is a real change in mindset regarding landscape aesthetics.

Increasing the entropy on one’s property is as easy as falling off a log (which of course is a literal example of increased entropy). Pollinators need plants which bloom at all different times, grow at various heights, and have a multitude of flower shapes and structures. For greater abundance and diversity of wild flowering plants, all you need to do is stop. Stop constantly mowing everything. Choose some places to mow once a year in the late fall, and others where you will mow every second third year. Stop using herbicides, both the broadleaf kind and the non-selective type.

Before you know it, elderberry and raspberry will spring up. Woody plants like dogwoods and viburnums will start to appear. Coltsfoot and dandelions, essential early-season flowers, will come back. Asters and goldenrod (which by the way do not cause allergies), highly important late-season sources of nectar and pollen, will likewise return.

Wild grape, virgin’s bower, Virginia creeper and wild cucumber will ramble around, without any help whatsoever. However, you may choose to help this process along by sowing perennial or self-seeding wildflowers like purple coneflower, foxglove, bee balm, mint, or lupine. Even dandelion is worth planting. You’ll not only get more wild pollinators, you’ll also see more birds. Redstarts, tanagers, orioles, hummingbirds, catbirds, waxwings and more will be attracted to such glorious neglect. No feeders required.

I strongly advocate for more chaos in the plant department, even if the local Chamber of Commerce or Tourism Board frowns upon it. Remember, just because you’re an unkempt community doesn’t mean you have to change the name of your town.

Photo: Western Honeybee, courtesy Luc Viatour.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

10 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Thanks Paul. As I sit here in my unkempt wildflower “garden” I can count six bumblebees making their rounds of my coreopsis, late echinacea, and annual sunflowers that haven’t croaked yet. I must confess that I do have a small yard that I whittle away at every year letting wild plants take over – especially at the forest edge. However I must maintain my yard along the road or the imbeciles that throw out their beer cans and food wrappers would not be able to see their contributions to society.

    • Boreas says:

      I forgot to mention the four Painted Ladies that were here sipping nectar just before the sun went behind the trees. Wildflowers RULE!

  2. geogymn says:

    Nice article, nice message.

  3. terry v says:

    I have always just cut my grass(mostly moss)
    this year, after threatening ourselves for several years, we got 2 hives.
    We love it. so far so good.

  4. Richard L. Daly says:

    Great essay, Paul. I now know that I have been NOT doing something RIGHT all along! … Best, Richard

  5. Stephen Wilson says:

    Thank you Paul Hetzler for your notes on the significant value of maintaining a “messy yard”, and for your position on allaying mowing to allow for a longer term supply of forage for all pollinators, wild and managed, I would add that we beekeepers are finding that spotted knapweed, Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife (all on the NYS Invasive Plants List) are providing critical end-of-season forage for our honey bees’ winter survival.

    Therefore, even though we recognize that farmers must move to control the spread of these aggressive species, we are against the development and application of ubiquitous biological controls.
    Stephen Wilson, Altamont, NYS Beekeeper of the Year

  6. Richard Grover says:

    Excellent! Go wild in your own back yard.

  7. Marisa Muratori says:

    Among the many beautiful gardens in Lake George Village is a hyssop garden on Beach Road which has been allowed by the Village’s excellent landscapers to grow with abandon. It is the most alive garden I have ever seen. The amount and variety of bees and butterflies it attracts is stunning.

    • Boreas says:


      I agree. I don’t know why more municipalities and private landowners don’t seed vacant lots and such with wildflowers, including milkweed for monarchs.

      I would also like to see more of this along interstates and other roadways. It would go a long way toward helping pollinators stabilize their populations – and it looks great as well. It would certainly cut down on the mowing if 50-100 foot wide strips were left to flowers in some of the medians.

  8. Stephen,
    I understand your position on those nectar-rich invasive plants I am of the opinion that because Japanese knotweed is sterile and cannot spread through seed, there is no real harm in allowing it to flourish on your property so long as it is not in a riparian zone, and you can keep it from migrating off-site. Regarding loosestrife, there are already naturalized populations of 4 different biocontrol insects, so it will in general be relegated to small patches in the future.

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