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Published May 05, 2014, 09:48 AM

Preservation of the bees

Lawns are food deserts for pollinators that depend on flowers for their nutritional needs.

By: Jonathan Otis, Agweek

Pollinators have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately; and, as a beekeeper, I have been answering a lot of questions.

“What’s up with the bees?” they say.

Well, it’s complicated.

For many years the pride of every neighborhood has been the perfectly manicured and totally weed-free lawn. While this looks nice to many people, it actually is very harmful to our communities. Most of the grasses planted in these lawns are not native to our area, and they require large amounts of water to maintain. They also must be mowed regularly and often are treated weekly or monthly with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and, occasionally, pesticides.

These lawns are food deserts for pollinators that depend on flowers for their nutritional needs. Bees and other pollinators are flower feeders that get their protein and carbohydrates from the pollen and nectar of the various blooms they visit. Without native plants and weeds, pollinators are left with very few nutritional options.

“So why should I care about bees?” they ask.

Honeybees, specifically, pollinate nearly one out of every three bites of food we eat. Without their services we will lose more than half of our fruits and more than a third of our vegetables. Meat, milk, cheese, eggs and other products that come from animals will be less nutritious because of a loss in the variety of forage available to these animals. Pollinators are responsible for keeping our plants strong and healthy by increasing their genetic diversity. This diversity leads to more nutritious options for anything feeding upon these plants. Financially, the economic impact of losing this pollination is estimated at more than $14 billion in the U.S. alone.

“What can I do about it?” I’ve been asked.

Imagine for a moment a lawn full of blooms, textured grasses and native plants that require little to no maintenance, that is drought-tolerant and can offer fresh food for your family. With a little planning and preparation, this scenario is possible. Ideas that once were considered offbeat or countercultural are now entering the mainstream. Neighbors are ripping up their grass lawns and replacing them with native flowers. They are planting raised-bed gardens and terraces for cultivating food. An increasing number of families are keeping chickens and honeybees in our cities.

We are on the verge of a real food movement in the Lake Superior region. Increasingly, people are caring more about where their food comes from and how it is produced than on maintaining grass. Membership in community-supported agriculture, or CSA, is at an all-time high and farmers markets are popping up in many neighborhoods. Discussions at the neighborhood hardware store or greenhouse center on pollinators and chemical-free gardening.

Lake Superior Honey Co. has applied for a Seeds of Change community grant encouraging neighbors to replace portions of their grass lawns with gardens for people and bees. If the project is successful, the money raised will be used right here to assist in planting gardens. These food and flower gardens will provide forage for pollinators and food for neighbors.

Together we can grow a healthier community.

Editor’s note: Otis is a beekeeper in Duluth, Minn.

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