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Seminar Sharing: A Land Ethic Beginning With Bees

Note: Periodically at the Leopold Center, we have the chance to play host to scholars, conservation practitioners, writers, and thought leaders that are applying Aldo Leopold’s writing and philosophy to modern work. For years, the foundation has created opportunities for the local community to intersect with that scholarship through our Brown Bag Seminar Series, a program adapted from Leopold’s own practice of hosting graduate student presentations at the Shack on a regular basis. We’ve been keenly aware that interest in these talks stretches far beyond the boundaries of Baraboo, and have been looking for ways to share access to these speakers with a wider audience. We’re pleased to introduce this new “Seminar Sharing” feature on the blog, where our brown bag seminar presenters will step up as as guest authors and translate some of their presentation content to share widely. Expect to see more of this in the future, and please let us know what you think in the comments!
-Editor

Leopold’s land ethic can be scaled up to grandiose proportions, but it begins on a personal level. You don’t need money, or your own land, or a college degree to have a land ethic. Any number of things might inspire a person to develop a connection with the land: dark rich soil, fresh flowing water, the sound of birdsong at dawn, or concern over a lack of these things. For me, it’s bees.

Bees are examplary creatures to start with when diving into land issues. For one thing, bees are hugely popular, with recent science and news attention on pollinator declines and the importance of bees to food production, human health and economics. Although the unidirectional “save the bees” rhetoric is prevalent (they need us), a different framing also prevails: our fate is inseparable from theirs. We and bees need each other, and manipulating the landscape affects us both. The bee has become a poster child for interconnectedness and land health.

Developing a personal connection to the land can start simply, with two tenets ubiquitous in Leopold’s writings and accessible to any curious person: patient observation and an appreciation of historical change. Both are pertinent when considering our relationship with bees.

Alert, patient observation

It takes a keen eye, alert reflexes, and a good measure of patience to study something as small and vivacious as a bee. It would take two or three lifetimes to become acquainted with the over 20,000 species of bee in the world, but it takes no time at all to be won over by the bee’s inherent charms. You can see it on the face of someone observing critters on the insect scale for the first time, who didn’t know what dramas were playing out in their own yard until they stopped to distinguish among the flighty insects hovering above their purple coneflowers.

Still, most of us do not take the time to stop and look. Take the rusty-patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, which in south-central Wisconsin is right under our noses even as it is scarce elsewhere. These days the University of Wisconsin Arboretum is one of a few known places where you can regularly spot B. affinis, though the bee used to be found anywhere from Maine west to the Dakotas and south to Georgia. You might think such a rare critter would have a massive public relations campaign, but most people do not know it exists.

The rusty-patched bumble bee has declined in approximately 87% of its former range. Map: The Xerces Society. Photo: Johanna James-Heinz.

The rusty-patched bumble bee has declined in approximately 87% of its former range. Map: The Xerces Society. Photo: Johanna James-Heinz.

Appreciation for what is here now and what was here before

Bees native to the U.S. and Canada include 46 species of bumble bee (Bombus spp.) and roughly 4,000 other native bee species, most of which are solitary (they do not form colonies). Before European colonization, the western hemisphere’s only honey bees were the stingless Melipona species of Mexico, Central and South America.

In 1622, colonists introduced the domesticated European honey bee (Apis mellifera) to North America. Like beef and dairy cows, the domesticated honey bee allowed for drastic transformation of the American agricultural landscape into what it is today. A. mellifera lives in large, perennial (multi-year) colonies that can be boxed and transported, allowing pollinator-dependent crops like almonds to be grown on grander scales than what would be possible relying only on native bees.

A young almond orchard in the Central Valley of California. Almost half of all U.S. honeybee colonies travel to California’s Central Valley each February to pollinate 800,000 acres of almonds, and then are transported elsewhere. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A young almond orchard in the Central Valley of California. Almost half of all U.S. honeybee colonies travel to California’s Central Valley each February to pollinate 800,000 acres of almonds, and then are transported elsewhere. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

That’s not to say that with honeybees on the scene native bees no longer do their fair share. Wild pollinators are generally more efficient pollinators than honeybees, and in many cases contribute more to fruit yield. Many small-scale growers of apple, cranberry, blueberry and other pollinator-dependent crops do not rent honeybees, instead relying solely on wild insects living near their fields for crop pollination. These growers are keenly aware that their livelihoods are tied up with bees’ wellbeing, and many have decided to manage their land in pollinator friendly ways.

A collection of postage stamps

Bees don’t need much, just shelter and healthy nearby food sources. They forage for nectar and pollen near their nests, and their nests may be found in roadside ditches, dead tree trunks, under tufts of grass, and many other quirky nooks and crannies.

Small improvements on one postage stamp piece of earth at a time can collectively change the face and function of the landscape. Some actions, like full prairie restoration, are time intensive, but some are so easy that they simply require a little bit of negligence (failing to mow the lawn when clover is blooming, for example). Here are a few existing efforts to get involved in or draw inspiration from: