Pollinators are not going to change, so we have to

It is easy to blame the loss of bee habitat on “them”—them being industrial farms, expansive orchards, sprayed fields, and freeways kept neat with herbicides. But in truth, our modern cities and suburbs are just as bad. We have covered the land with mulch, decking, concrete, flagstones, bricks, pavement, and lawns. None of these things are attractive to bees—not managed bees and certainly not solitary bees.

We install many of these unnatural surfaces to suppress weeds and mud. But it’s weeds and mud that the bees need. Most of the world’s bee species are solitary, and most of the solitary bees either nest in the ground or use mud to build their homes. By covering every square inch of earth with something to protect us from mud, we deny these creatures a place to live.

To make it all worse, the things we plant are not helpful to bees either. Lawns are carefully tended to preclude any broad-leaved plants. Lawns used to be planted with a clover and grass mix. Those lawns never needed nitrogen fertilizer because the bacteria that live on the roots of clover fixed atmospheric nitrogen into something the grass could use. But clover has long since fallen out of fashion. Now we kill the clover with chemicals and then add chemical fertilizer to make up for the lack of nitrogen. How can we be so confused?

And instead of lining our lawns with flower borders, we now use evergreen trees and shrubs that are easy care and don’t flower. Collectively, our lawns look sterile and uninviting—like the front of a bank. Sure, they are neat and trim, but nothing lives there.

Part of the problem is that we are busy, so we want landscapes that are easy to care for. But our gains in ease have been more than offset by losses in beauty, biodiversity, and seasonality. Our lawns look the same regardless of whether it is spring or fall, summer or winter. And somehow it is not okay to have worn and dead plants falling to the ground or dry seedheads releasing—heaven forbid—seeds. Everything must be clean, neat, sterile, and artificial. It is more acceptable to have a pink plastic flamingo in your suburban yard than a cosmos that has turned brown and fallen over. A junk car in the driveway is more acceptable than an overgrown lawn. And you can spread all the poisons you want—but please get rid of those dandelions!

We won’t be able to solve the problem of diminishing pollinators until we redefine what is good and bad in urban and suburban landscapes. We need to convert at least a portion of our close-cropped, weed-and-feeded, monocropped lawns into patches of meadow, wild flowers, clovers, and native plants. We have to understand that it’s okay for a plant to die back in the winter and for seeds to blow on the wind. And there has been room for—dare I say it?—mud.

Each time I ponder what I can do for the bees I realize that the problem is bigger than it first appears. Laws, ordinances, and homeowner associations preclude a lot of things that would be good for pollinators. Social norms preclude a lot more. And when pressed, people will explain that pollinators live “out there”—in the country, in the woods, or in the wild.

But there is no “wild” anymore, and the very worst place for bees is the agricultural regions. And the woods? The Department of Natural Resources in my own state routinely sprays new plantings of Douglas-fir with herbicide—which leaves nothing for wild bees to eat.

Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for any of this, but something has to give. Values have to change. A whole lot of people have to care. Until that time, the plight of the pollinators is simply going to get worse—and most of us won’t even know it is happening.