The story below is an excerpt from our Nov./Dec. 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Solitary wild bees like this bumblebee nectaring on Torch Tithonia (Mexican sunflower) provide essential pollinating services to wild and garden plants.
The challenges facing the monarchs and the wild bees bring illumination and duty to protect what we put in peril.
In mid-august, I was restocking terrariums in the Orchard at Altapass’s nature corner with monarch caterpillars. After two miserable summers with almost no monarchs around, I’d found quite a few monarch eggs on milkweed in my backyard and in fields up the road. I reared the caterpillars until they got big, then handed them off to my friend Judy Carson so Orchard visitors could watch them transform from caterpillar to chrysalis, chrysalis to butterfly, before Judy let them go.
As is often the case, my restocking work attracted some attention. Among those who stopped to see what I was doing was a woman who looked at the luxuriant milkweed I was putting in the terrariums, and remarked that milkweed, once abundant on their property, seemed to have died out. I didn’t need to tell her, as I had just told someone else, that milkweed is essential to monarchs because it’s the only green stuff their caterpillars recognize as food.
She asked if we had milkweed plants for sale. We didn’t. But common milkweed along roadsides was already producing pods. Once they ripened and began bursting open, she ought to collect some, I said. Take them home and empty their contents into a grocery bag. Close the bag around your wrist, rub the seeds and fluff together, shake the bag so the seeds fall to the bottom, then cut an opening in one corner and pour the seeds out. Take them outside. Scatter them where you want milkweed to germinate next spring. Don’t keep them in the house over the winter. The seeds need what nature provides – periods of cold and moisture – to germinate. You can find directions online for mimicking those conditions in your fridge, but why bother? Follow nature’s lead.
That made sense to her. She already knew about the perils that monarchs face and wanted to help. As we continued our conversation, I found she knew a lot more: for one thing, about alarming declines in wild bee populations. Honeybee declines are getting lots of press these days, but wild bees are as important and are in similar dire straits. The woman said her husband had been making artificial nesting sites for solitary wild bees and setting them out on their property. Those he’d put behind their barn were, for reasons the bees knew but she didn’t, receiving the most use. Just then, her husband wandered up. She told him what I’d said about reintroducing milkweed. Come fall, he agreed, that’s what they’d do.
A few days before I met this couple, I told someone that the main thing I seemed to be doing this summer was taking care of monarch caterpillars. When he’d looked blank, I’d said, “It’s what I do for the world.” The couple at the Orchard was similarly engaged. They’d established and were tending plots of native wildflowers. They gardened organically. Now they would reintroduce milkweed.
They could not know how important our brief conversation was to me. Day after dispiriting day, I’d been listening to horrific news of war and pestilence: from Gaza and eastern Ukraine; Syria and northern Iraq; from West Africa, where the Ebola virus was grimly reaping. I’d heard people hurling words like spears at those they hated and feared. On an over-crowded planet, where too few have way too much and way too many have far too little, I hadn’t quite realized how much I needed an exchange about shoring things up instead of tearing things apart.
The couple disappeared before I had time to confess how appalled I’d been, a couple of weeks earlier, to learn that for years, without realizing it, I’d been systematically destroying the nests of solitary bees and wasps. In an interview I’d heard on public radio, an expert on native pollinators said he grew raspberries in his back yard, not for the fruit so much as to provide nesting habitat for solitary bees and wasps. They drill holes in the pruned ends of old canes to build their nests, he explained. Cutting out spent canes every year, I’d noticed those holes. I’d been particularly careful to break those canes up before taking them to the compost pile. I’d assumed the holes were evidence of something attacking the raspberries. Assumed without bothering to find out – and in so doing, killed off the tiny nesting wasps and bees I so enjoy watching in summer as they hover above the minute blooms on my fennel, catmint and thyme. I’d known they were beneficial, as pollinators, predators and parasitizers of garden pests. It never occurred to me to wonder where they lived.
Now I know where some of them do. Cleaning the raspberry patch will take longer from now on. If I expect the wild world to nourish my body and spirit, I’m going to have to learn a lot more. The consequences of ignorance are not bliss.
All afternoon, I’ve been writing to the buzz of a small bumblebee just outside my window. It’s methodically working the jewelweed, pushing its plush body into first one flower then another. These last few days have been hot and humid, but the buckeye leaves are the color of rust; a blizzard of them blew across the yard a few days ago, in the wind before a storm. My last monarch eggs have hatched; chrysalises are accumulating at the top of the cages. The part of the earth the bumblebee and I inhabit is tilting away from the sun.
More than 20 years ago, I was offered an expensive piece of real estate in this magazine, a two-page spread upon which to have my say, on any topic and in whatever words I chose. I don’t think I understood quite what a privilege that was until back at the beginning of the summer, when a friend and I met in Asheville for lunch. This was around the time that an unhappy young Californian climbed into his black BMW to cruise the streets. He shot and killed a half dozen people he didn’t know, and then himself. Before he started the car, he posted a 140-page manifesto on line in which he set forth his complaint with the world. Lots of people read it, or part of it, because he killed those people. If he hadn’t, would anyone have bothered? Probably not.
One of the things my friend told me was how much she was enjoying Facebook; she’d renewed acquaintance with high school friends and with students she’d long ago taught. She was somewhat surprised that I hadn’t established an online presence. Why not?
“Because I’m already out there,” I said. Out there, thanks to this column.
Even before that though, before Elliott Rodger’s anger and pain drove him to kill in order to be recognized and heard, I’d been thinking the time was coming for me to cede my space in Blue Ridge Country to someone else. Time for me to get off the stage. I’m extraordinarily grateful to longtime publisher Richard Wells and to Kurt Rheinheimer, my longtime editor, for giving me this chance. What unbelievable luck, Kurt writing me back in the days when we still used typewriters and communicated by snail mail, to invite me to take over this column when its original author moved away from the Blue Ridge. What incredible luck.
I’m grateful to each of you who has taken the time to read what I’ve had to say. No writer could ask for more. Thanks to those of you who wrote to me when a column moved you; to those who stopped me in the grocery store parking lot or at the bank to tell me how much you liked a column you’d just read. I’ve loved every bit of the time I’ve spent, thinking about what to write, and then, through the writing and rewriting, discovering exactly how I felt and what I wanted to say. Thanks for listening – and all the best.