Backyards As Arks for Wildlife

Native bee feeding on blanketflower in my “unlawn”

Several years ago, my editors at Audubon Magazine assigned me to write a story on native bees that took me to California to interview Professor Gordon Frankie, an expert on urban bee populations at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Frankie had become interested in studying urban bees after he was asked to identify bees from a census of a Berkeley-area park and was stunned by the number of species found, far more than he had expected.

What I learned from shadowing Frankie in a field workshop and in his urban bee garden on the Oxford Street farm at U-C Berkeley opened my eyes to the value of backyard wildlife habitat.

Bumblebee stuffing herself into a Rocky Mountain penstemon flower as she forages for pollen and nectar.

First, learning that there are more than 4,000 species of native bees on this continent—four thousand species!—introduced me to the astonishing diversity of native pollinators. I had no idea that there were so many kinds of bees that had evolved with North American flora, ranging from bees as tiny as the period on the end of this sentence to carpenter bees almost as long as my thumb. Nor did I realize that native bees were generally easy-going.

Frankie demonstrated the placid temperament characteristic of many native bees by plucking a foraging female out of a California poppy flower and dandling her—there is no other word to describe his gentle and affectionate handling—as she rolled over and groomed herself, seeming unfazed.

Squash bees in a zucchini flower

Nor did I realize how versatile and critical these native pollinators are to the survival of so many kinds of plants, domestic and wild. Some species, Frankie told me, have such a close relationship with one particular kind of plant that they are that plant’s only pollinator; without “their” bees, the plants produce few seeds, and are at risk of extinction. Sadly, many bees, Frankie said, were disappearing from wild lands and urban habitat alike, killed off by pesticides, habitat loss, introduced diseases, climate change, and competition with non-native species, including honeybees.

A bumblebee (Bombus huntii) colony in an irrigation valve in a public park. (Unlike honeybees, these colonies do not survive over the winter; they build their nests in unused animal burrows and other holes in the ground.)

What really blew me away was when I asked Frankie what I as a home gardener could do to help native bee populations. “A plot [of bee-friendly plants] as small as 10 by 10 feet can help,” he said, explaining that he and his colleagues’ research pointed to such small areas of bee-friendly urban habitat as “refugia” for wild bee populations, harboring bee species that could repopulate adjacent wildlands and preserve genetic diversity. So he and his team had set up a website to help gardeners grow bee-friendly landscapes.

Hairstreak butterfly nectaring at an antelope horn milkweed flower, along with some small moths I can’t identify (look closely at the flowers for the dark moths).

The idea of yards as “arks” that might actually preserve species was empowering–I had always thought in terms of bigger swaths of habitat. So I began designing urban landscaping projects with an eye toward providing critical habitat for native bees and other  “little guys” that themselves support bigger wildlife from birds to bears.

But what about those bigger species, I wondered. Could backyard habitat somehow help their survival too? Censuses like Christmas bird counts showed that yards with native vegetation supported higher bird diversity than yards with non-native or exotic plantings.  Now a new study published last month in the online science journal PLOS ONE  gives the first quantitative data to support those observations.

Juvenile rufous hummingbird perched on my garden gate, between forays to sip nectar from wholeleaf indian paintbrush and scarlet gilia in my front yard grassland.

In the study, researchers from U Mass-Amherst and Arizona State University used 24-hour video monitoring to measure foraging behavior of 14 common Sonoran Desert bird species in 20 urban yards, half with “xeric” plantings of largely native vegetation that mimicked the surrounding desert, and half with “mesic” landscaping including turfgrass lawns. Researchers measured foraging by placing trays in each yard filled with a specific amount of millet mixed into sand, and then timing how long birds spent searching for seed in the trays, as well as weighing how much seed remained when the birds quit foraging.

The results, say the researchers, show that birds in desert-type yards spent less time and energy foraging for seeds in the trays than birds did in the yards with lawns. It’s not that the xeric-yard birds spent less time feeding; they simply used the seed trays less because these yards offered more natural food.

That significant  difference in foraging behavior is hard evidence, say researchers, of crucial differences in habitat quality. As the study synopsis concludes, “thus our study lends additional support for native landscapes to help reverse the loss of urban bird diversity.”

Imagine our yards as so many arks, providing habitat that helps reverse the loss of biodiversity. Imagine reconnecting with nature every day, right at home, and feeling good about our contribution to the health and beauty of this extraordinary Earth, the only home our species has ever known.

© 2012, Susan J. Tweit. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Susan – an empowering article about how we can make a difference with even a small area of “habitat” in our backyards. I too was astonished to learn the sheer number of bees that are native to the US – so many of them reliant and relied upon by a small number of plant species for survival – it truly makes a case for protecting as many of those individual species as we can.
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Japanese Beetles, Chickens and the Habitat Farm

    • says

      Ellen, I am really heartened by the study from Arizona quantifying the benefits of landscaping with natives. It makes me feel like we can each do something right at home that is good for us and for giving a helping hand to many of the “little guys that run the world,” as EO Wilson famously said. It’s not easy to convince people to make changes, but I think the evidence is working in our favor. Onward with the backyard habitat revolution!
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..The contemplative season again

  2. Eric says

    Some really endearing bumble bee behavior my wife and I have witnessed:

    bumbles falling asleep inside and aster only to have it close around them at night and keep them wrapped up till morning

    my wife “petting” a bee as it rests on a flower

    • says

      Thanks, Beatriz. The idea that we can give biodiversity a boost by restoring native plant communities in our yards is a powerful one, whatever term you use to label it. I think it’s empowering to see ourselves as having a positive impact on the planet for a change….
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..The contemplative season again

      • says

        Susan, thank you so much for this empowering post with its fabulous metaphor of the yard as an ark, and its links to new revealing data that support the validity of the work so many are engaged in to bring more people to the understanding of the importance of their small plots of land. I will certainly be using this image in my next presentations: powerful in its simplicity. Nice work!
        Sue Dingwell recently posted..Success with Urban Wildlife!

        • says

          Thanks, Sue. I think what the idea of backyard arks does–at least for those of us with a Judeo-Christian background–is link to that powerful image of Noah and the Ark. It also reminds us that we can be a positive influence on the Earth, and we so often think of nature and people as opposites and in fact, as enemies. If we can change that unconscious association, that will really help us find a new way of being part of the community of the Earth.
          Susan J. Tweit recently posted..The contemplative season again

  3. says

    Maybe I’ll name my garden “Vogt National Wildlife Refuge” or “The Vogt Ark.” Helpful links, and the comments do make me think of our stubborn holding on to European landscaping ideas that just don’t and never worked in our diverse American landscapes. Many lawns are brown here, but many aren’t (should be with .7″ of rain in almost 3 months), and the golf courses are green green green.
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Do You Have Any Butterflies?

    • says

      I think your garden should be Vogt Prairie, although you could get formal and go for Vogt Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, but that’s pretty much a mouthful! No, the lord-of-the-English-manor landscaping style does not work on this continent, even in the relatively well-watered East. (Unless you really do own that flock of sheep to keep the turf sustainably nibbled short, and the “encroaching” native shrubs and wildflowers tidily chewed to the nubs.) Lawns are the bane of urban life, poisoned deserts we admire in our perverse understand of what is “pretty” and “tidy” instead of what is healthy and diverse, sustaining the greater community that is Earth. It’s sad.

      BTW, we’ve had a total of 5.24 inches of precipitation here since January 1st, so we’re not in much better shape than your drought-burned prairie region.
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..The contemplative season again

  4. says

    Susan this is why I garden…when it dawned on me that I was helping the local environment and habitat it was easy and it is why I do not obsess when my garden looks wild and unkept…the critters are happy and that is all that counts for me..I just want to extend the choices for them and welcome more….my husband loves to pet the bees that visit the yard….and they are very tolerant of him.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Gardens Eye Journal-September 2012

    • says

      You’ve just summed it up beautifully, Donna: “The critters are happy and that is all that counts for me… I just want to extend the choices for them and welcome more.” BTW, I wrote a column for Zone 4 Magazine (a regional mag for gardeners in the Rocky Mountains of the US and Canada) called “In Praise of Untidyness.” The magazine’s horticultural consulting editor had a lot of trouble with that one, but it eventually got by his objections!
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..The contemplative season again

  5. says

    Susan, I too love the name “Arks for Wildlife”, the image is wonderful and we truly are in need of millions throughout the country and world. Connecting with nature in such a loving way too ‘dangling bees that groom’ . . . knowing and protecting . . . is both precious and priceless . . . good for the soil and soul of our earth and lives. It is amazing and inspiring to know that nature has such intricate puzzles that can only fit by specie to specie . . . and that there is so much diversity. 10X10 . . . interconnecting arks . . . instead of lawns! That is something to look forward to. Very heartening article!! Thank you for the important links.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle: A Metamorphosis ~ Part One ~ The Capable Caterpillar

    • says

      Carol, EO Wilson once called ants, “the little guys that run the world.” I think his point about the importance of the smallest lives is very pertinent for insects/invertebrates and other tiny lives, especially in terms of creating backyard “arks.” If we can provide great habitat for “the little guys,” we could make a huge difference in the health of earth’s communities as a whole. I think people are most likely to be open to changing their “yard aesthetic” away from lawns if they can see some real positive benefit, and what better benefit than making a real difference in preserving biodiversity? I’m cautiously optimistic that this new research will give the movement some momentum.
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Adventures in caregiving: moving Dad

  6. Regina Moser says

    Susan, this is a great question, “What can I do?” and fabulous answer!

    What really blew me away was when I asked Frankie what I as a home gardener could do to help native bee populations. “A plot [of bee-friendly plants] as small as 10 by 10 feet can help,” he said, explaining that he and his colleagues’ research pointed to such small areas of bee-friendly urban habitat as “refugia” for wild bee populations, harboring bee species that could repopulate adjacent wildlands and preserve genetic diversity. So he and his team had set up a website to help gardeners grow bee-friendly landscapes.

    Thanks!
    Regina

    • says

      Regina,

      You’re welcome. I’m glad you were inspired. I found Frankie’s answer empowering at a bunch of levels, especially the level of we humans being able to have a positive–rather than relentlessly negative–impact on our everyday landscapes. I also loved it for his suggestion that with some knowledge of our local native plants and their relationships to pollinators, we can each come away feeling more connected. Seems to me that nurtures our terraphilia, and our sense of being part of the landscapes where we live, both very positive things.
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Adventures in caregiving: moving Dad

    • says

      Thanks, Carole. And thanks for pointing to Noah’s Garden, which I read years ago and which was indeed what give me the “ark” idea. As an aside, I had suggested to my editor at AUDUBON magazine that I interview Sara Stein for an article recently and then was saddened to find that she died a few years back. Her books were so inspiring to me in restoring wildlife habitat in urban places, including yards.
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Adventures in caregiving: moving Dad

        • says

          She was someone for whom the label visionary is appropriate, and she wasn’t egotistical about it, which is refreshing. Just passionate, and very articulate and knowledgeable. Her voice and her art live on, but on a selfish level, I’m sad that neither of us got that chance to talk to her….
          Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Adventures in caregiving: moving Dad

          • says

            You’re so right. She truly was a visionary! Considering Noah’s Ark came out in 1993, and Bringing Nature Home didn’t arrive on the scene until 2007, Sara Stein was way ahead of the times, bringing a cogent and illustrative argument for restoring the ecosystems of our own backyards to benefit wildlife. For so many years she was the lone voice out there making these very important points that each of us could really make a difference for wildlife by learning to make healthier choices in our gardens.
            Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Why Focus on Ecosystem Gardening When There is So Much Wrong in the World?

          • says

            Carole, I sometimes wonder if Sara Stein didn’t get the national exposure for Noah’s Garden if she was ahead of her time or because she’s female. Nothing against Douglas Tallamy and Bringing Nature Home, but is seems to me that women’s voices do not get the attention that men do saying the same thing….
            Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Adventures in caregiving: moving Dad

            • says

              Then we will simply have to work hard to change that! Things have changed so drastically since Noah’s Garden came out. At that time I was telling everyone I knew they HAD to read her book, but there was no internet then, and reaching people was a one person at a time proposition. Now there’s blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter and so many other ways of reaching a much larger audience that ideas can spread so much more quickly. I, for one, am thrilled that Sara’s book is still in print and that even though it may be too late for her to personally see and receive the recognition she deserves, that I can still work to spread her message. She was a huge part in my decision to choose the career path that I have: http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/thank-you-sara-stein/
              Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..A Love Letter to Wildlife

              • says

                Carole, I agree that things have changed drastically since Noah’s Garden came out, and fortunately, you have the energy and knowledge to be a great champion for her work. She may not be around to know that, but she’s lucky (and I don’t mean to be flippant in saying that). Like you, reading Noah’s Garden was a perspective-shifting event for me, only I came into it knowing the community ecology part; it just never occurred to me that as a plant ecologist I had anything to say to gardeners that they might want to hear. Sara’s writing made me realize just how much I had to contribute, and I’ve been working at figuring out my niche in the gardening/urban landscaping world ever since. I’m so glad we each found her work at a point it was so deeply inspiring!
                Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Adventures in caregiving: moving Dad

                • says

                  Susan, you absolutely have much to contribute! You are reaching so many people with your own art and a way of painting with words that invites people to visualize their own path. And I’m not much into labels. People ask me why a conservation biologist is even interested in gardening when there are so many larger problems to be addressed, but I strongly believe that if we all could learn to make healthier choices in our own landscapes that many of those larger problems could be resolved.
                  Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..A Love Letter to Wildlife

                  • says

                    Carole, I agree with you: home is where we learn out habits and our ways of thinking, consuming, and relating to the larger world. If we can see ourselves as making a positive environmental impact–conserving biodiversity and providing healthy, interesting habitat–in our yards, our relationship with the world will be transformed. Here’s to so many interlinked Arks, making the world a more diverse and rich place!
                    Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Weather Report: rain & renewal

  7. says

    Thank you Susan for this lovely post. The concept of the ark is such a powerful image, at least for us Westerners (smile), and I love the hope the idea of an ark conveys. Thank you also to Carole for the Noah’s Garden suggestion. I just put in an Interlibrary Loan request so I can read it!

    • says

      Christy, It is a powerful image for those of us who have some knowledge of Christianity or Judiaism. That’s it’s limitation of course, but still it seemed worth using. Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden is written about her part of NY, but it’s applicable in terms of its concepts to any piece of property. I love that she observes and learns as she works with the natives to reweave a healthy community of the land. (And I wish she were still with us!)

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  1. [...] What really blew me away was when I asked Frankie what I as a home gardener could do to help native bee populations. “A plot [of bee-friendly plants] as small as 10 by 10 feet can help,” he said, explaining that he and his colleagues’ research pointed to such small areas of bee-friendly urban habitat as “refugia” for wild bee populations, harboring bee species that could repopulate adjacent wildlands and preserve genetic diversity. So he and his team had set up a website to help gardeners grow bee-friendly landscapes. The idea of yards as “arks” that might actually preserve species was empowering–I had always thought in terms of bigger swaths of habitat. So I began designing urban landscaping projects with an eye toward providing critical habitat for native bees and other  ”little guys” that themselves support bigger wildlife from birds to bears.  [...]

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