Where have all the flowers gone?
We hear it all the time: the honey bee diet is poor. Bees need more flowers of many different types if they are to survive in the modern world.
Once upon a time, flowers were everywhere. Meadows of fragrant blooms shimmied in the breeze, viney tendrils choked fence posts, and tap-rooted weeds squatted in gardens. Flowers effervesced from ditches, outlined ball fields, and hugged mail boxes. In early spring, pink and white petals drifted against street curbs like new-fallen snow. So where did they go?
The war on weeds
We tend to blame corporate agriculture for our ills, and indeed big ag is not blameless when it comes to stomping out flowers. Farmers till the soil, plant large acreages of a single crop, and spray it with herbicides. If the farmer is growing animal forage, he mows it down at the first sign of a bloom.
But farmers are not the only culprits, not by a mile, because there is us. By “us” I mean everyone who is not a farmer. We are all parties to the inexorable war on weeds. School districts do it. State and local governments do it. Departments of transportation, health, and recreation do it, as well as utilities, railroads, and businesses. But all those flower killers pale in comparison to the North American homeowner.
In our zeal to have perfect houses with tidy lawns, we have displaced every living thing that is not grass. In fact, according to a recent article at EarthObservatory, lawn is the “single largest irrigated crop in America,” accounting for an area three times greater than all irrigated corn.
Long gone are the days when grass seed was mixed with clover. Back in the day, it was common practice. After all, clover harbors nitrogen-fixing bacteria which fertilizes the grass. With a combination of grass and clover, you didn’t need to fertilize. But today, seed companies want you to buy plain grass seed, plus weed killer, plus fertilizer—so much more profitable than a plain old seed mix.
The messiness of trees
Worse, we have decided that flowering trees are “messy.” Flowering trees drop pollen, petals, catkins, twigs, seeds, and leaves—nasty stuff, indeed. So all across America we have replaced these honey bee superstores with obedient, clean, low-maintenance evergreens that seldom drop anything.
And in those places where a weed manages to survive, we attack it with cultivators, mowers, weed-eaters, and chemicals. If it’s not grass, kill it. If it flowers, kill it faster, sooner, better. But then we gaze across our sterile landscapes and ponder the loss of pollinators. “Why are bees in so much trouble?” we wonder, oblivious to what we’ve done.
The need to conform
In many North American cities (think Chicago), residents are getting fined for having pollinator gardens or native plant gardens because they are not in keeping with the character of their neighborhoods. Apparently, you are not community-minded if you don’t administer poison at the same rate as everyone else, or if your lawn doesn’t match the lawns on either side of your home. It should be the same species, the same shade of green, and mowed at the same frequency. Flowers are forbidden.
I don’t know the answer. I live in the country at the end of a private road, which means the county doesn’t mow it, plow it, fix pot holes, or issue tickets. Even so, yesterday I saw my neighbor flatten the bordering dandelions, henbit, clover, and shooting stars—all cut short while the bees feasted. It was the last supper for many.
So it seems that even out here, hidden from public view by a long gravel road, we are expected to maintain weedless, pristine passageways and non-offensive growth on our properties. I suppose anything else is un-American.