07 March 2018

Reimagining the Suburban Yard to Reverse Pollinator and Insect Decline

A Possible Pollinator Solution and Other Things I Learned from My Nature Yard

I wanted to share some things that I learned from growing native plants in my yard. This will be about what I learned about nature and some discoveries about how we might rethink the idea of the suburban yard from an alternate land management perspective.

My ideas and approach come from my childhood. I grew up in a bucolic setting in a heavily wooded area. My mother’s side of my family is Pennsylvania Dutch and we carried on some of those traditions in collecting wild berries for jams and pies and growing our own food in gardens. Another thing we would do was transplant plants from the woods to gardens, although I now realize this was probably not really a good thing to do. I was different from other kids, more curious. I thought plants were beautiful and learned to identify them. I still remember the thrill of finding large patches of native orchids. I was a general science geek and over the years I got distracted by chemistry and eventually computers which lead to my career as a software developer.

Years ago I purchased my first and to date only home. Initially I mowed my lawn and maintained it in the spirit of the American suburbs. My love of native plants never really died out and became rekindled by the local flora. Instead of transplanting plants I merely collected a few seeds here and there and started planting them in pots and the garden areas of my yard. Over time I let them take over my whole yard and what I came to see was amazingly beautiful.

Please note that I took all the photographs in this post and with one exception, try to guess which one, they were all taken in my yard and thus they document the biodiversity that I created. You can click each photo to enlarge.

Aggressive Native Plants Will Own Your Yard

My yard became something of a Darwinian botanical Battle Royale. As I planted various species of native plants and spread their seeds in my yard, I realized that given the soil and varying climatic aspects of the environment of my yard, some plants tended to be dominant. Unfortunately some of the more interesting plants got outcompeted by the more robust plants. These plants are perhaps less glamorous and while they are native plants and in some cases represent the natural cultural heritage of the region, Arlington County Virginia considers them weeds. The upside is if you are lucky enough to live in a municipality that respects science, nature and its regional natural cultural heritage, you can with little watering and some periodic weed pulling of invasives create an environment where native species can dominate your property.

Bees Are Very Diverse

If you follow the news you have no doubt heard about the plight of the bees, for brevity’s sake the beepocalypse. What you may not realize is that the bees whose plight wins the attention of the media are an alien European species. They are even trucked around like cattle to almond groves and other places and are made of use to pollinate the flowering plants that feed us, excluding the wind pollinated plants like wheat and oats. In these stories we contemplate the Matrix like gruel that humanity will be subjected to when the pollinators die off and we only have the wind pollinated species for food. What they never tell you is that there are another set of bees constituting over a thousand species that might be able to step up and take on that role. Maybe they could make the difference in pollination. What would happen if we give them the habitat and opportunity to flourish? Maybe we wouldn’t even need to create Black Mirror style robobees.

In my native plant yard I saw many species over the years and in the summer of 2016 it seemed that hundreds maybe thousands of bees visited my yard in a day. At times it was like a small cloud of dozens of tiny bees floating above each of the plants in addition to all of the other bees. That year in my yard the pollinator crisis seemed to be a myth as I saw the exact opposite of what I have read about. Admittedly this is only one observation.

Bees Are Not the Only Pollinators

While this statement might seem somewhat obvious as most people know that Butterflies (Lepidoptera) are also pollinators.

There are also other insects in the Hymenoptera family such as wasps and ants that also pollinate plants.

Additionally some flies (Diptera) are pollinators as well. In fact some plants like the Pawpaw tree, a tree known to my ancestors, with its fleshy colored flowers are dependent on carrion flies and beetle pollinators. People will sometimes hang rotting meat and chicken bones on its branches to attract these pollinators.

Many Things Are Pretending to Be What They Are Not

Deception Might be a Preferred Approach in Nature

In nature insects use mimicry to try to deceive predators and prey. Hemipterta often try to look like parts of a plant, such as thorns or look like insects that are infected with fuzzy white insecticidal fungus.

Lepidoptera will have eye patterns to dissuade predators from sneaking up on them. One even mimics the Monarch Butterfly which is unpalatable due to absorbing milkweed toxins.

Another potential human deception is to try to look like a badass. In the insect world some of biggest badasses are wasps and bees of Hymenoptera who have stingers. So if you want to look like a badass look like a wasp or a bee that can sting you even if you are a wimpy little fly. The bottom left is a moth so even Lepidoptera gets in on this deception. Nature is not without irony the Large headed fly (bottom right) actually lays its eggs in bumble bees and they gestate “alien style”, although apparently do not usually kill their hosts like the aliens.

You’ll Have Lots of Predators

When you create a habitat that attracts a lot of insects it also attracts a lot insect predators. Birds and spiders obviously fall into that category. There are many insects that predate on other insects. Many larva including those of flower flies are predatory. I suspect that yellow larva (bottom right) is waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator. Top left an assassin bug feeds on a flower fly. The two iridescent flies are long legged flies, predators who do elaborate mating dances on leaves throughout the day.

Arachnids Are Sneaky and Exhibit Intelligence and Individualistic Social Behavior

Some spiders employ deceptive hunting techniques. As you can see above there are two crab spiders hiding and blending into the flowers. I don’t know what the longer legged one in the two adjacent pictures is but it seems to be mimicking either a flower or a flower fly which I suspect was one of things it was trying to capture as there were lots of them around the Enchanters Nightshade plants it was hanging from.

Around the time I got my macro lens and started observing the jumping spiders in my yard, I came across an article about the surprising intelligence of the Portia jumping spider. I have to admit they are fun to watch they move incredibly fast and their eye configuration is remarkable with two large eyes in the front and posterior eyes that potentially give them 360 degree vision, just try to imagine your brain processing that perspective. They seem intelligent, it also seemed like they got used to being photographed and went from fleeing me to just ignoring me.

Opiliones aka Daddy Long Legs aka Harvestmen exhibit individualistic social behavior. The photo above shows what is reffered to as loose aggregation social behavior. They would hang out with each other all day long sometimes in clusters of up to 20-30 individuals.

I can’t help but to go on an astrobiological tangent here. If you look at our deep ocean creatures you’ll often find cephalopods (octopuses, squids, etc.) and arthropods like crabs and lobsters which are related to our terrestrial arachnids, insects, among others. A recent article talked about the possible ocean and life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. I used to think it would be Jupiter’s moon Europa, but it might have issues of the water being under too high pressure. If complex and even intelligent life were to evolve in these environments it could look similar to life in our oceans.

Cephalopods clearly display intelligence. However, if one were to consider the jumping spider intelligence and individualistic opiliones social behavior this could point to the idea of intelligent social arthropods. Could these species be a possible mirror to what intelligent life might look like deep in these ice moons oceans?

Spiders Seem to Have a Better Understating of Topology than Humans

Ok, I’m going to embellish these a bit. In the top left you can see the conical shape created below the egg sac, probably a trap to funnel prey. However, it’s very much a two manifold exhibiting a local maxima, most of the computer industry is trying to find these places with machine learning. The bottom left shows the Cartesian-esque plane making it locally Euclidean and thus a 2 manifold yet again. The bottom right shows a typical spiders web, this, albeit a bit irregular, exhibits a polar coordinate representation of two dimensional plane, or perhaps a vector field on a two dimensional plane. The spider on the top right sits atop an irregularly spaced two dimensional plane.

Indian Hemp Is an Amazing Plant

It is likely the local Necostins relied on Indian Hemp (Apocynum Cannabinum) for fibers for their bowstrings and maybe for other uses. You can lean more from the film Soft as Silk - Strong as Steel: The living heritage of Apocynum Cannabinum. In fact I would make the case that this plant should be allowed to grow everywhere based on the fact that it is the natural cultural heritage of our region and I know it sounds cheesy but out of respect for those who came before us here on this land.

Ok, Native American pretense and drama aside, there are some very practical reasons to grow Apocynum Cannabinum. Last year it seemed to flower for about six weeks in late spring early summer, which means it supplied six weeks of flowers to support pollinators in that time period while not competing with the late summer plants it grew next to in my yard.

Its strong structure that is comprised of those fibers seems to provide a physical support lattice that benefits other plants. Indian Hemp Apocynum Cannabinum grows to a certain height. Amongst it Jerusalem Artichokes, Wingstem, Hairy Leafcup, and Common Milkweed, grew taller and bloomed later. When I was forced to cut down my yard, I manually removed all of the Indian Hemp first as I had intended to investigate how to extract fibers. I noticed that the other plants seemed to have some physical dependence on the structural support it provided as they immediately fell over. Now I know this is all anecdotal but it really did seem to make a difference. Of course I had to cut down all of the other plants too so who knows how that might have played out. Indian Hemp is related to milkweed, it has a milky sap and the leaves are hydrophobic as you can see in the photo above. This creates significant plant mass that is pretty insect resistant. It’s also a very hardy species so it can probably survive a lot of hardship.

If you look at many of my pictures of insects and spiders it plays the role of the stage for many of them. In fact the jumping spiders seemed to use it as a way to move quickly in three dimensions and to catch ants on it. While, the iridescent long legged flies performed their mating dances on its leaves.

Every Year Brings Something New

Every year in my yard I would see something I had not seen before and in many cases would not see again. One year it was shiny metallic Dog Bane Beetles. Another year it was lots of ants symbiotically tending to a brood of Rhino Thornbugs and aphids the next year. Last year it was lots of jumping spiders, tiny bees, flower files, and lots of milkweed bugs mating. The year before that it was an Opiliones explosion with hundreds of them. I suspect things like predator prey cycles or other factors in climate and the plants and fungus each year affected what I saw. Regardless, it is such a thrill to just experience what a nature yard will throw at you each year. While this year brought me ground dwelling bees and hawks, sadly it also brings me much sorrow and stress.

You Can Create an Amazing Amount of Biodiversity in Even a Tiny Yard

My little yard, less than a quarter acre, supported around 20 species of native plants. This is fairly diverse for such a small yard. But the real diversity came in the form of the visitors especially the terrestrial arthropods, insects and arachnids but also many birds, chipmunks, and rabbits. I am still astounded by what I saw when I would just look out the window or take a few steps out of my front door. The photos here present it and there are many more species that I did not show.

You Can Witness Mysteries of Nature That Even Scientists Don’t Really Understand

Above I mentioned the Loose Aggregation Social behavior of Opiliones. What’s really interesting and maybe a little sad is that scientists don’t really understand this behavior and there are way more questions than answers about the social structure and motivations of these creatures. In a sense this is a true mystery of the universe and it happened one summer in my own back yard. Amazing!

You Can Be a God

I the movie Groundhog Day Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors declares himself a god, not the god, but a god. This is due to the fact that he knows everything about the local environment and all events that he has not altered ahead of time. When you plant a yard of native plants you create the natural environment in your yard. You create the opportunity for the most amazing things in nature to exist in your yard. You conjure these things into existence. Ok, it’s an: “if you build it they will come” scenario. In a sense you become a god creating nature. Admittedly a less dramatic perspective is you allow this to happen and the nature already existed. But it’s a fun way to think of it and chances are all the drones living next you are creating the antithesis of this in their chemically treated monoculture yards.

Your Local Municipality Is Most Likely the Enemy of the Environment

Unfortunately many municipalities, in spite of their pro-environmental rhetoric and propaganda, consider dense native plants in residential yards a nuisance. In Arlington County the code enforcement officers refer to it as an “infestation”, which vaguely sounds like saying “witch”. They also call it a public health and safety hazard for which I doubt they have any supporting evidence. If you want to grow a native environment on your personal property, which should be your right, expect to be treated like a criminal and to be met with very parochial attitudes from very ignorant, very arrogant, and very officious local government employees whose salaries are paid for by your tax dollars. Unfortunately, local ordinances effectively promote the use of toxic chemicals in suburban yards to maintain monoculture grass yards over native plants.

The Solution to Our Pollinator Crisis Might Literally Be in Our Backyards

America really needs to rethink its obsession with the chemical treated manicured lawn. Of course this is big business and I would not be surprised that if in aggregate, chemicals, services, equipment and other incidentals would number into the billions of dollars so there are obvious economic incentives to keep this going. But are we really looking at the true costs here. Local municipalities promote this through their ordinances and here in the Chesapeake estuary local citizens and service companies probably contribute tons of pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer run off that ends up in the Chesapeake. My yard used none of these and replaced almost all of the grass with native plants. In my back yard there was exposed dirt at the base of thick swaths of Virginia Knotweed, this is good habitat for native bees. I would also leave tree branches to rot in my yard which also provided habitat for native bees, flies, arachnids, fungus and other things. This also reduced the amount biomass that got fed into the county collection system which is funded at taxpayer expense. It even felt like my air conditioner ran less with tall Jerusalem Artichokes, Hairy Leafcup and Indian Hemp in the front yard and as I mentioned it was amazingly beautiful.

Now of course there are some potential pitfalls that need to be avoided and can be through the management of a nature yard. Things like rat harboration would be a potential issue. I did have a chipmunk burrow, not sure if that counts as a hazard. Especially since chipmunks are super cute and the baby ones are even cuter. Also I would destroy any colonies of wasps or yellow jackets as they are a danger to people unlike many of the native bees which are stingless.

It seems to me if local municipalities would take an active role in encouraging native plant yards and were to create programs to help manage them and inspect them for potential hazards that many pollinators could be added to our local environments. I don’t have any actual numbers so this is guestimate but it seemed like my tiny yard at its height was supporting hundreds maybe even over a thousand flower fly and native bee pollinators and I mean habitat for them to breed as well.

Arlington County and other municipalities could probably add hundreds of thousands if not millions of pollinators locally by allowing and incentivizing these types of yards, even at relatively low rates of adoption. They would benefit the Chesapeake as well from reduced run off. Think of the effect if this approach were to spread through the Mid-Atlantic megalopolis and the other megalopolises in the United States.

Of course this is all conjecture on my part and I am a fan of science, I regret not applying a more scientific method to my yard, but it started as an innocent hobby. This is an area that is under study at the National Arboretum (pdf) and should probably be studied more in situ. Of course how can you when it’s illegal in most municipalities in the U.S.

All Things Come to an End

I have decided to sell and move out of Arlington. Arlington loves McMansions with monoculture lawns and that’s exactly what they will get: one more. I used to be somewhat proud to call myself an Arlingtonian, now I am just disgusted by Arlington County Government. There are some other very annoying issues pertaining to the neighborhood that I live in that I tolerated due to my yard, they are now unbearable. I will try to transplant some of the plants but many will not make it. I will be sad to see the remains of what I built completely destroyed. But in life sometimes you have to let go to move on. I just hope what I did here will make some difference some day.