Brooklyn, Butterflies and Bees | Civil Eats

Brooklyn, Butterflies and Bees

Last weekend I spent a few minutes thinking enviously of all of you chowing down at Slow Food Nation. Then I got up and went outside to watch my bees.

Okay — they’re not really “my” bees, although they do drop by frequently for a bite to eat. In fact, they’re invited guests: welcome to dine any time on the butterfly bushes and lantana — micro-habitats for nectar lovers that I’ve nurtured this summer in front of my Brooklyn building.

It is probably not news to Slow Food Nation readers that in the United States, a still poorly-understood phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) has wiped out millions of commercial bee colonies in the past few years. Even worse, CCD comes after about thirty years of steep declines in feral honeybee populations. Bees have been vanishing in Brazil, India, and a host of European countries as well. Is CCD due to pesticides? Habitat loss? Climate disruption? Depletion of genetic diversity? Infiltration of hives by damaging mites? Clues suggest that some or all of these factors and others, alone and in combo, directly and indirectly, are responsible directly and indirectly for wiping out vast populations of bees.

If you are a foodie — slow, fast, or some speed in between — you have a stake in the fate of the bees, because these little pollinators are fundamental to the propagation of about one third of U.S. crops. So their disappearance is potentially a flat-out disaster for our food supply, whether it’s grown industrially or on a family farm.

As a city dweller, I’m typically encouraged to vote my values with my dollars — buy organic, buy local, buy artisan — and leave the wildlife preservation to the professionals working well and far away from my sinful urban center. And yet, it’s accelerating urbanization that accounts for a lot of the habitat lost to bees — and butterflies as well — meaning that even city dwellers can do a lot more for bees than just spinning our cogs in the consumer machine.

Feeling generalized alarm as I read one disturbing report after another about CCD, last fall I began researching how to create welcoming and nutritious gardens for nectar-lovers. Then I began strategizing my campaign to seize control of the four big planters in front of my Brooklyn building — the only home gardening space available to me. While I discussed internally how best to convince my neighbors to support the project, I also fought the peculiar complacency that comes with being an environmental journalist: knowing too well just how big problems like climate change, or disappearing animal habitat, need big solutions: laws and mandates and such. I was aware of just how small my scope as an individual was (outside of my writing assignments, at least) to made a dent in solving them.

Fortunately, this inertia was jostled by an essay in an April issue of The New York Times Magazine, by Michael “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan, who wrote in part:

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.

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Okay, a challenge to get up off my passive tuchus and do something. I could work with that.

So I contacted my co-op board about revamping the container plantings. Anticipating resistance, I prepared a list of potential flowering plants, explained why they’d look great, and noted the amazing butterflies they’d attract while strategically omitting mention of bees (which are not a big sell for many urbanites, who typically experience bees only in cartoon form on the labels of our honey jars, or associate them with painful memories of summer camp stings). But my expectations happily off-base: the board members were thrilled that someone was actually volunteering to to uproot and replace the creepy, half-dead fir bushes that had failed to prosper in the planters for the past seven years. I was immediately given a budget to cover the cost of the plants, new dirt, and delivery. And by the end of May I was tending four new plantings of butterfly bushes, salvia, and lantana — all known magnets for bees and butterflies — with some ornamental trailing vines planted at the edges of the pots to round out the garden design.

Thinking solely of my higher calling to offer nectar to bugs, I didn’t anticipate that tending the plants — they need near-daily watering, and pruning of dead stems and flowers to keep them in bloom — would mean spending more time just hanging out in front of my building than ever before. And thus encountering my neighbors more than ever before. My private crusade to make a tiny difference turned into an opportunity to get better acquainted and maybe spread the word about wildlife gardening in the city: they stop and thank me for tending the flowers; I smile at their babies and if they seem interested, tell them a little about wildlife gardening.

And not just my immediate neighbors: Strangers pause to compliment me on the deep purple budlia blooms, or (it being New York City, after all) offer advice on watering and deadheading the bushes. Toddlers with their nannies halt in their teetering steps, transfixed by my bright yellow watering can, and volunteer to “help the flowers.”

Planting these bushes is the most tangible thing I’ve ever done to help save a wild creature — and even after three months have gone by, I’m thrilled every time I spy a bee or butterfly set down for a snack. Sometimes I take a pre-caffeinated stumble downstairs to find out who’s dining on my spikey butterfly bush blossoms and dainty lantana blooms during the first cool hours of the day. I’ve seen vivid orange-and-black Monarch butterflies, elegant black swallowtail butterflies, shimmering green dragonflies, and at least two or three different kinds of bees.

Can I cook, or what?

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Emily Gertz is a journalist and editor covering the environment and science. She has contributed to Dwell, Grist, Popular Mechanics, Worldchanging and other publications, and is the editor of (set to launch in late September 2008).

Photo by: Emily Gertz

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Join the conversation.

  1. Tina Fiedler
    Way to go Emily!

    You are right, when WE do it enough, enough of us demanding nature wherever we live, demanding organic food, growing our own, etc. only THEN will the government pay attention.

    I'm an urban farmer south of Los Angeles. I will never grow tired of "feeding" my bees with pumpkin blossoms, zucchini blossoms, hollyhock, the works. I am contributing to the bees' health- which contributes to my mental health...immensely.
  2. Bob Cruickshank
    Hello Emily, Thank you for your article. I found it while surfing "slow food", a new term to me. I am interested in organic gardening as well as butterflies and bees. It seems to all come together doesn't it? I took special note of the flowers you planted and will plant them next spring. Thanks again for sharing your story. Peace, Bob Cruickshank
  3. Gina
    I loved your reflection, thanks so much for sharing.

    I live in a slightly less urban environment, but I had the same experience.

    I didn't really meet my neighbors until I started planting things in my yard.


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