Wild Yards

In one sense, this is a rather depressing book. Nancy Lawson is the author of two books on the wilds of the backyard. This doesn’t seem to have had much effect on her neighbors. She’s surrounded by killers. Her neighbors are constantly felling trees, mowing and whacking, leaf-blowing, and, periodically, madly stomping on 17-year cicadas. Faster, suburbanites! Kill! Kill! They fill the neighborhood with stress-inducing noise (affecting people and animals, including insects) and toxic ‘cides in their dreams of sterile lawns. They think of the lawn and the garden as places of order and sterility in the service of human vanity. Basically, they despise life. They must not be fond of Lawson, who is attempting to foster it. Or her sister: a homeowners’ association spent four years and $100,000 battling her sister’s butterfly garden until the Maryland legislature codified wildlife-friendly plantings.

By now we all know about Monarch caterpillars/butterflies and milkweeds. Or do we? Things are more complicated than they look. Diversity is, once again, the key. Aphids, which usually cause people to hiss, and other herbivores on milkweed increase chances of Monarch caterpillar survival, probably because of dilution: there are just more things for predators to eat. Aphids sucking on milkweeds reduce the plant’s defensive armory, also good for monarch caterpillars. At the same time, it seems that caterpillars munching on the milkweeds simulate plant defensive strategies that help keep aphids at bay.

It also turns out Monarch adults collect pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) from not milkweed species, particularly boneset. This has rarely been observed; I’ve never seen it, but then, I didn’t know to look for it. I’ve probably thought the butterflies were just resting. Check out the Monarch RX project. Produced by plants as an anti-herbivory strategy–PAs taste awful to mammals–PAs clearly help Monarchs with something. One scientist studying the phenomenon speculates that the PAs may help against a nasty protozoan disease. (Grasshoppers, beetle, and fly species are also known to collect PAs from plants to re-purpose if for courtship and defensive purposes.)

Fill your roadsides and verges with milkweed? Well, traffic noise turns out to stress Monarch caterpillars, too. Some stress is good, of course, it keeps you on your toes. Repeated or constant stress, on the other hand, has negative effects. Researchers in this study came across their first biting Monarch caterpillars. Anthropogenic noise makes you less healthy, less productive, more aggressive (“you” here includes humans, other mammals, birds, insects, frogs…).

The various threats of the Western Honey Bee are elucidated. Good to see the latest science getting out there. Even providing sugar syrup for hummingbirds is questioned. (By now, most hummingbird feeders have found out that red dyes are actually bad for the birds.) Far better to plant species that provide nectar, infinitely richer in nutrients and, it seems, vital for hummingbird gut bacteria. It seems like we’re doing good things feeding hummingbirds, but are we? Nectar isn’t just sugar.

There is, in short, a lot to think about in this book.

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