For the Birds and Bees 

Photo of a bee pollinating a dandelion
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Spring is here, and we’re enjoying birds returning from the south, the cheeseburger love song of the black-capped chickadee, the buzz of bumblebees, and the re-greening of grass. There is, however, a pathos in this spring: birds and insects are in trouble, we need them, and they need our help. 

Insect populations are declining by around 2 percent each year: this includes both pests and the good guys, our pollinators. These buggy critters can be the bane of any gardener’s or orchardist’s existence, but there are simple ways to find a balance. 

Dandelions Are Our Friends

The first step is to stop spraying to kill dandelions. I’ll pause here while you all rant for a bit, but, face it folks, we’ve been fed too many TV commercials showing us a pristine green lawn for too long. Dandelions are the first plant to flower in the spring. Bees and other insects depend on these sunny morsels for their first meal. You spray, they eat, they die. If you need a green mono-crop lawn, try to at least set aside a portion that allows these beautiful gold flowers to flourish. 

I fertilize my grass with a 16-16-16 plus sulfur mix once each spring, but I don’t use the weed-killing products. Also, if you’ve never had a spring tonic of young, steamed dandelion leaves (with a little salt and butter or olive oil), you’ve missed a treat. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites.

Spraying the Garden

The next thing we can do is spray insecticides that don’t last long. Most people want to reach for the heavy hitters, products with names that sound like mystery chemicals from the latest sci-fi movie. Try to avoid those. They kill a wide variety of insects, friend and foe alike, and work their way into the food chain and kill other animals. 

Alternatives, such as Neem (I use this to prevent apple scab) and Spinosad (for codling moth), are short-lived and organic-approved. I make sure to spray them before sunrise or after dusk, so the wet doesn’t contact bees. Once dry, they’re safe but still kill the target pest: coddling moth worms. I add some kaolin clay (Surround is the brand name), and this light dust seems to be the main deterrent on my apples. Some folks make traps from molasses and vinegar and hang them in the tree, but I’ve yet to try that.

I don’t use these sprays in the garden. I find that a wide variety of healthy plants host a plethora of beneficial insects (and birds), and my pest problems are few and far between. Three tablespoons of dish soap in a gallon of water kills aphids (the heavily-perfumed Costco stuff seems to work the best). Add a tablespoon of baking soda to knock back powdery mildew. 

For ants and roaches, sprinkle a little Borax (under various trade names in the garden section of your hardware store) in their path. They’ll carry it back to the nest and zap the entire colony. I do this only when I find carpenter ants near my house. Otherwise, I leave them for the birds.

Yellowjackets, Wasps, and Bees

If you can stand it, leave the yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets alone. They are insect-eating machines. I, personally, can’t tolerate their aggressiveness, so when the weather turns warm (early May, usually) I put traps out—the ones you find in the hardware store. I only want to capture the queens, so I take the traps down in early June. I find that I miss enough, and by fall they’re still around to pester me as I harvest or picnic outside. 

I am in Northwest Montana, where we’re getting quite a few European paper wasps. They look like yellowjackets but have a longer, narrower waist, orange antennae, and they can stand on water and drink—something yellowjackets can’t do. These paper wasps are quite docile and eat a lot of insect pests in the garden (like aphids), so I try to keep them around. 

Keep an eye out for Hunt’s bumblebee, a little critter with an orange butt (the official taxonomical term is abdomen), one of the most beautiful winged creatures in the garden and an incredible pollinator. If you find a little fuzzy, baseball-sized sphere under a wood pile, leave it—that’s their nest. It’s filled with orange eggs the size of a pea.

For advice on other problems that arise, talk to your local organic farmer. They’re always up on the latest techniques and discoveries. While you’re at it, buy something from them to help their bottom line. Also buy a few native plants and grasses—they’ll help maintain a diverse (aka healthy) insect ecosystem. 

For the Birds

Now that we’ve taken care of our insect friends and foes, let’s talk birds. Our feathered friends are in deep trouble. We’ve already taken the first step to help them by reducing (or eliminating) our pesticide footprint, allowing healthy insects to end up in their diet. The next step is to, if you can, bring your cats inside. 

Estimates are they’re the second or third leading cause of avian mortality, along with habitat loss and pesticides. I’m mixed on this because our neighbor has a few barn cats, and, while they do spend time under our bird feeder, they have also eliminated a lot of the mouse problems in our garden.

Habitat loss is a major problem as the forests across the Caribbean our birds use during our winter are disappearing. It’s also happening here in the States. Montana’s state bird, the western meadowlark, has suffered from loss of native grasslands and, by some estimates, has suffered a population decline of 60 percent over the past 50 years. We can give them a healthy home with some native grasses in our lawns and landscaping and some nest boxes.

Outdoor Lighting

Where we can help the most, however, is with our outdoor lighting. Running into buildings is now the leading cause of bird mortality. Birds migrate mostly at night and do so while navigating by the stars. If they have bright lights in the way, it can disorient and even kill them. 

The current estimate is that one million birds die every day from building collisions. Every day! This is particularly troublesome in large cities with tall buildings, but most of us have heard a thunk and gone outside to find beautiful feathers scattered underneath a window and an unblinking eye staring up at us. 

You can take steps to help:

  • Put a decal in your window to help birds see that it’s a solid structure. Put them on the outside of the window. Any decal will work, and a few small ones seem to work best. 
  • Make your outdoor lighting as minimal as possible. 
  • Choose light in the amber or orange color, which is less intrusive than the bright blue-white ones. 
  • Make sure your fixtures point toward the ground and are solid on top, to prevent illumination from heading upward.
  • Encourage your local planning board to implement dark skies protocols, which are what I described above but implemented for local developments, especially malls, car dealerships, and industrial areas.

If we take care of what we can on our own, we help—a lot. Buy organic to cut your pesticide footprint and, through your investment in the marketplace, encourage more growers to move to organic methods. Much of the food we eat would not exist without pollinating insects. We can help them thrive and, in turn, fill our skies again with winged song. I also dearly hope to be able to go outside in future years with my grandchildren, look up, and see what is becoming increasingly rare: the heavenly host of brilliant stars. MSN

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