Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
From “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats
Yeats’s poem is a hymn of longing sung by a city dweller standing on “pavements grey.” Perhaps Yeats overestimated the incompatibility of modern life and the spiritual connection to nature.
For some of us sheltering at home since last March, the urban backyard has become a refuge. Seed suppliers ran out of seeds when everyone with a few quarts of potting soil decided to plant a kitchen garden. Add cold-hardy herbs, native perennials, flowering shrubs, a prairie remnant nearby, and you have a recipe for a wildlife refuge in a teacup. Getting to know the small creatures in my own backyard was the ideal prescription for connecting with sanity and grace in a world gone mad.
Recently a spate of studies on the decline of domestic pollinators and insect populations worldwide has drawn attention to the potential for integrating pollinator habitat not only into agricultural settings but also into urban landscapes. Research is revealing the importance of floral diversity, of integrated pest-management, and of protected nesting habitat. Can urban areas support pollinators? My patch of urban landscape in the South Capitol neighborhood is home to a dazzling array of lizards and beetles, predators and prey, wasps and bees. Among the bees I’ve observed, about 75 percent are wild bees in a range of shapes, sizes, and colors. Most are solitary ground-nesters.
More than 80 percent of all plant species rely on pollinators for reproduction, and bees are by far the most efficient pollinators. Unlike the abundant insects of the tropics, bees evolved and thrive in drier areas of the planet. North America is home to some 4,000 species of native bees, and New Mexico alone has an estimated 1,000 species. Our semi-arid climate and diverse ecosystems provide an ideal setting for research on native bee species. In 2002 doctoral student Karen Wright began collecting data for a long-term monitoring project on the bees of the Sevilleta Wildlife Preserve. To date, the research team has listed 300 species. In 2020 native-bee specialist Olivia Carril completed a five-year study of bee populations in the Rio Grande del Norte Monument in Taos County. Carril’s data will begin to fill gaps in our knowledge of bee-plant interactions, nesting preferences, and the effects of drought on native bee populations.
Pollinator conservation efforts are being directed toward all beneficial insects, but bees are the flagship animal in the Bee City USA campaign (beecityusa.org). An initiative of the Xerces Society, the program aims to “endorse a set of commitments, defined in a resolution, for creating sustainable habitats for native pollinators, which are vital to feeding the planet.” Commitments include establishing a standing committee to advocate for pollinators, augmenting pollinator habitat on private and public lands, implementing an integrated pest-management (IPM) program, utilizing signage, and an online presence to acknowledge the Bee City affiliation, sponsoring pollinator-awareness events, and paying an annual fee of $400.
Nicely situated in bee country, Santa Fe is poised to become a Bee City. A resolution drafted by Christine Y. Chavez, the City’s water conservation manager, and Robert Wood, water conservation specialist, will be brought to the Santa Fe City Council this spring by Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth. The standing committee will be hosted by the Randall Davey Audubon Center. The requisite IPM program has been in place for more than a decade.
Urban dwellers have ample opportunities to participate in the effort to bring back pollinators. Visit xerces.org to take the pollinator protection pledge and download the publication “Pollinator Plants: Albuquerque and Santa Fe Region.” Check out the abundant educational webinars being offered by cooperative extension services, botanical gardens, and environmental groups. Get to know your own diverse population by reading The Bees in Your Backyard (Princeton, 2016), a beautifully illustrated guide by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril.
The philosophy and practice of supporting beneficial insects is compatible with programs that do so much more. Plant legumes to increase soil nitrogen: along come bumblebees for the nectar and pollen. Plant native grasses to sequester carbon and slow erosion: along come butterflies that depend on blue grama as a principal food for their caterpillars. Leave standing the milkweed blooming in a ditch: along come monarch butterflies, a variety of native bees, other beneficial insects, and the now ubiquitous European honeybee.
Pam Wolfe holds a master’s degree in applied mathematics and worked as a biostatistcal consultant to researchers at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado, until her retirement in 2012. She is a graduate of the Denver Botanic Gardens Botanical Illustration program, an Extension Master Gardener, and a Santa Fe Native Plants Project (SNaPP) team member.