Let Me Tell You ‘Bout the Birds and the Bees

Warning: this column is about the birds and the bees and might make sensitive souls uncomfortable. I’ll throw in butterflies for no extra charge. Has anyone noticed that over the past few years you have been seeing less of these amazing creatures in your gardens and at your feeders? If you have, you are not alone. People around the Wake Forest area are talking about it, and even people in Pennsylvania, my home state, have noticed it. I for one, am distressed by this, for a decline in personal enjoyment and from an ecosystem perspective. A few years ago, I had so many hummingbirds at my feeders that they even fought with each other, and with the bees, too, who also enjoyed the sweet nectar I served up for them. One day, bees were hanging off the feeder like a buzzing yellow and black beard. There was a time when every other clover had a bee sitting on it.  Now, I get excited when I see one or two hummers, bees, or butterflies hanging around. Is this just an aberrancy that nature will adjust in time? I don’t think so.

About two years back, before I noticed the scenario unfolding in my own back yard, I wrote an article about this, and I think it is now time to revisit the topic. In 2017, Food and Wine magazine detailed how our food supply is dependent on birds, bees and butterflies, and it warned that bees and butterflies were going extinct. Several reasons were mentioned, not the least of which was the use of pesticides, and thus began my awareness of the devastation these chemicals can bring on our world.  

I never use the spray types of insecticides and used “Sevin” dust only once, but it stayed on the plants and every time I looked at them, I wondered how many birds, bees, and butterflies I was killing. Instead, I decided to use the “Bayer 3 in 1 Advanced” granule form to handle plant insects, diseases, and mites because it was not topical, but I was deluding myself, and I knew it. Once those granules get absorbed into the soil, they enter the entire plant system. The only thing that comforted me was that I had not applied the product when my flowers were blooming, which is the time they are frequented by pollinators, who then ingest the chemicals. One year we had a lawn service spray for bugs. That year I had deformed, dead baby bluebirds in my box. That was the last time they came.

One of the worst of these chemicals is imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, and the one that is in the “Bayer 3 in 1” line of products. Neonicotinoids have been used for two decades as a cost-effective way for farmers to control insect destruction of their crops. Because neonicotinoids, of which there are eight different forms, had initially been deemed “safe” for use on food crops for humans, it has been allowed continued commercialization. However, in recent years, pesticides have been linked to bee colony collapse and now to the decline in the hummingbird population. A Feb 23, 2021, post from the news blog “Beyond Pesticides” discusses the problem of pollinator decline and states that “overwhelming data has already been established on the threat neonicotinoids pose to the health of ecosystems worldwide.” Not only are pollinators affected, but now there is concern about their effects on humans, amphibians, and other aquatic species due to fact that these chemicals can leach into our environment, persist in the soil, and are highly soluble in water.

Has this discussion of the birds and the bees made you uncomfortable? I don’t know the answer to this serious problem, but I know that, thankfully, scientific research continues. I am going to try some non-toxic options to treat my plants this year, and if they don’t work, I’ll stick some artificial flowers there instead.  

New Life

Little did I know, when our Realtor gave us a bluebird house in 2001 as a house-warming gift, that it would bring us such joy. We get 2-3 families every year who grow up and fly away to spread their beauty and happiness in the world. I did some research on bluebirds and was totally enamored with them. When we moved to our new home two years ago, we brought the little house along, and the locals wasted no time in finding it.

During breeding season, I lift the door of the house to check on the eggs and babies, sometimes pulling out the insert that holds the nest to check on them. Contrary to what you might think, you can touch a nest and the parents will come back. They may not be happy about it, and they are never far away, but they will come back. I can see Mom and Dad watching me from a rooftop, from the basketball pole, or from my arbor with its graceful honeysuckle vine. I’ve read that you can even remove the babies and check them for insects. Nope, nope. That’s Momma’s job. The scariest time I ever experienced with my bluebirds was when I removed the nest to look at them and the babies flew out. Wow, was Momma mad! She flitted all over the place trying to round up her babies, dive-bombing me and yelling at me all the while. They were all fine, so I retreated into the sanctity of my home. I never took that nest out again when they started getting big!

These babies are different for me than the others. They were born on Easter Sunday, Jesus’s day of resurrection. I had looked at them on Saturday and Momma was sitting on the eggs, totally oblivious to the dangers lurking in the hands of this human being peering in at her. Animal instincts never cease to amaze me. On Sunday when I checked, there were the five babies, looking less like baby birds than tiny alien creatures. I slid my phone in above the brood and snapped the picture, never expecting to capture the wonder of life that I did. I had taken many photographs before, both inside and outside of the house, but I don’t think I ever caught them on the day of their birth.

These new lives came in the midst of chaos. COVID 19 has wreaked havoc on our nation and our world, without providing us with any information about when its destruction will stop or where to go from there. Just as a mother experiencing the birth of her child, we are living with fear, uncertainty, and pain, but just as a woman’s labor ends and bluebird eggs hatch, so will this pass. We will heal and we will prevail. My bluebirds convinced me of that. We, also, will experience new life, a rebirth. It likely won’t be as it was before, but we will get our lives back and we will survive. I don’t know the story of how bluebirds became associated with happiness, but I know that every time I see them, I smile. Find your “bluebirds” and smile. We have this.

Where Are the Birds and the Bees Going? 

Can you imagine a world without bees? You probably love honey and the beautiful flowers bees pollinate. Now imagine a world without birds. That’s a tougher one to think about. Imagine visiting a silent countryside or woodland, or even a silent backyard. Imagine not seeing them flying above you or building their nests in spring. Could this be a vision that our descendants will see? It could be. The use of pesticides is not only killing insects, but the birds who eat them and bees who get pollen from flowers. Even the flowers you buy at stores may be treated with pesticides that are found in the entire plant structure. How has this happened?

Just prior to WW II, a new chemical called DDT was discovered and found to be effective in killing the mosquitos that caused malaria and typhoid fever. Because these diseases were killing soldiers during the war, the military seized on the opportunity to use this newly discovered chemical. Now fewer soldiers died from disease, and the ones that came home alive were showing no ill effects from their exposure. Farmers were ecstatic. Up until then they were having a terrible time controlling the insects that were destroying their crops. DDT was like a miracle for them and they began profusely spraying it over their crops, totally oblivious to the damage it was doing. They needed it, the soldiers weren’t sick, and the government approved it. Who wouldn’t jump at this chance to save their crops, their livelihood?

But in the 1940’s the dawn began to break about the dangers of DDT, and in 1947 the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, was enacted, but this largely served to protect farmers and drug manufacturers from unscrupulous people seeking to get in on the action and had less to do with public health. The bill was passed without fanfare.

Enter Rachel Carson. Rachel was a marine biologist and environmentalist who began studying the effects of DDT on the environment, and in 1962 she released a book, Silent Spring, detailing the results of her research. Her book caught the attention of the government, who believed her conclusions showed enough merit to warrant further study, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born.

DDT was subsequently banned all over the world except in countries where mosquito-borne illnesses present a significant threat, but then new types of pesticides proliferated to replace it, bringing with them more health issues, especially with neonicotinoids, or neonics. These chemicals are potent neurotoxins that affect sense of direction and smell and cause paralysis. They aren’t selective in choosing their victims, so many beneficial insects are destroyed, along with the birds and bees who eat the pollen and insects.

More red flags were raised, and in Europe and Canada, neonics were banned, but not in the United States. Why? Is there a quid pro quo between the EPA, the government, and pharmaceutical companies? Limitations have been put on the concentration of neonics in agricultural products, but is that enough to save our wildlife? We can’t control what the government allows, but we can control what we use on our own lawns and gardens. Insecticides can be created using household ingredients such as garlic, onions, cayenne pepper, hot pepper flakes, liquid dish soap (without bleach), chopped tomato leaves, and apple cider vinegar.  Additionally, neem oil, chopped tomato leaves, eucalyptus oil, citrus oil, and chrysanthemums can be used for the concoction. Mix them up, try these natural pesticides, and breathe easier knowing that you are part of the solution.

Note: I am freelancing and I was asked to contribute to a newspaper in Canada. I’m allowed to share my work on my own blog if I wait five days from when they come out on their site and give a link to them. My articles here may be a bit different than my usual work but I hope you like them!   

 http://www.agoracosmopolitan.com/