Local gardeners can help preserve bee colonies.

by John Colgan-Davis

The last two weeks or so here in the Delaware Valley have let us know that there is change going on: subtle, regular, change that is quietly making itself known to us. It is a predictable change that heralds the next step in the cycle that keeps us abreast of our world.

There are changes going on in the immediate world around us: colors of plants and flowers are a little duller, and some of them are starting to bend over a bit in their window boxes, pots and planters. The birds, particularly the bright yellow and black goldfinches that have been dashing about the neighborhood, are losing their brightness.

Bees and butterflies seem to be in hyperdrive, appearing more numerous and dashing determinedly from flower to flower, seemingly working overtime. Fall is in the air, and we are at another one of those wonderful spots in the year where we have the simultaneous ending of one part of the cycle and the beginning of another. And it is quietly glorious.

This year, I have been especially focusing on the bees and butterflies in my regular walks and trips around Northwest Philly. This section of the city has always had a huge number of great gardens, window boxes, planters and flowerpots. The plantings in this area make the streets and alleys gorgeous, lively and colorful. It can feel positively joyous to be out in the morning and taking in the quiet spectacle.

And the flowers and plants draw a lot of butterflies and bees that make walking the area fun and exciting. At any moment, bees and butterflies can zip past or be seen hovering over and on flowers, plants and stalks, adding color and movement to the area. They are truly a gift to the neighborhood, and I think I have noticed a great deal more of both of these insects in the neighborhood this year. That is both good and important.

These two creatures have been in the news a lot recently, as environmentalists, entomologists, gardeners, beekeepers and more have been sounding warnings about the drastic declines in their numbers over the last few decades. There are some 4,000 species of bees native to the U.S., and according to some estimates, about 700 of those species are near extinction.

Butterfly numbers have also been dropping dramatically, with the United Nations estimating that 9% of butterfly species worldwide are at risk of extinction. We are losing many of these wonderful creatures, and this is not just an aesthetic loss. Not only are they fascinating to watch and beautiful to see, they are also a vital part of our economic well-being.

Bees and butterflies are pollinators, and as such, they contribute mightily to the diversity and amount of our food supply. Honeybee pollination, for example, is said to add about $15 billion annually to our agriculture production. That is an important part of our economy. Clearly, they play a big role in our lives. If they are at serious risk, then so are we.

The most severe threats to these species are believed to be loss of habitat due to development and the use of herbicides, particularly chemicals found in common weed killers such as Roundup. For years there have been court cases, lawsuits, attempts at legislation and more to address these fears, and that is happening now in the political arena.

Fear of losing pollinators is one of the reasons for the upsurge in organic gardening. Citizens seem to be planting not only for beauty now. I have noticed that a lot more gardeners in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill have been planting more milkweed, sunflowers, bee balm, monarda, hyacinths and other pollinator-attracting flowers and plants in recent years.

This section of Philadelphia has a number of beekeepers and honey makers living and working in it. It also features a large number of organic, community and personal gardens. Planting native species is also a big ethic among a lot of the gardeners here, and that is also a part of the Fairmount Park plan for caring for the Wissahickon Creek.

Hopefully this movement can continue to grow and spread throughout the city, state and nation. I still want to see those butterflies and bees in my garden and in gardens around the world. If you are interested in learning more about pollinators, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s website for more information.

John Colgan-Davis is a longtime Mt. Airy resident, retired public school teacher and harmonica player for the Dukes of Destiny.

...