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Monday, March 25, 2024

Rhode Islanders invited to join ‘Homegrown National Park’ effort in Rhode Island

URI insect experts say home gardeners can help stem insect slide

Kristen Curry 

Steven Alm and Casey Johnson in the University of Rhode Island Bee Lab would like you to think small. Alm and Johnson are working at scale, reminding us of the importance of, as E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.”

Though tiny, the issues they are examining are anything but trivial, bellwethers for larger issues and crises in our natural environment.

A professor at URI and keeper of its historic Insect Collection (which dates to the late 1800s), Alm is concerned about the insect loss he’s witnessed in the course of his career, never mind the species that now only exist in pinned specimen form, no longer in the wild.

“We’re in trouble with the insects,” he says. Birds, fish and other members of the food chain need insects — and their numbers are dwindling.

They will be sharing their expertise at a symposium on Transforming the Landscape sponsored by the Audubon Society this April.

Entomologists are seeing notable declines in insect diversity worldwide, caused by habitat loss, introduced species, novel pathogens, pesticides, pollution and climate change.

Based on historical records from the URI Insect Collection, for instance, a dozen species of bumble bees flew around the state at one time. Sadly, that number is now halved. After surveying the state for bees since 2019, URI researchers have only been able to detect 7 of these 12 species, indicating that the other five species are likely forever lost from the state or persisting in very low numbers in isolated populations.

Bees and other insects are not only the scenic backdrop, and soundtrack, to our summer gardens, they are essential.

Case in point: Alm notes that a University of Delaware study found that a clutch of chickadees requires 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to grow to adulthood.

“We need to focus on what’s at the bottom,” he says. “This is a large loss. You don’t realize how important insects are until they’re gone.”

And while honey bees have captured the public imagination recently, URI’s researchers say that all residents of our insect world, including wild and native species, are worthy of attention and care.

“Insects are not as scary or gross as people think,” says Johnson, who works with Alm as a research associate at the University. 

“When you start to watch them closely and see firsthand how incredibly diverse and beautiful they can be, some of those innate fears may wash away. Insects are an essential part of our world and should be treated as such.”

Johnson and Alm say that pollinator gardens and other homegrown efforts help. Even a single potted plant outside your front door has the potential to provide food for beneficial insects.

To help front-step and backyard gardeners alike prepare their spring yards, Alm and Johnson answered some questions. (They are also available for interviewing by media at URI’s East Farm or in the Youngken Medicinal Garden.)

What can homeowners plant to support wildlife this spring?

Leave the clover, dandelions and other flowers in your lawn, but remove invasive species that can take over. A slicer-seeder can be used to add white clover seed to your lawn; the seeds need good contact with the soil to germinate. 

Plant flowers we recommend, leave the leaves in the corners of your yard in the spring until the bumble bee queens have emerged and start their nests (mid to late April), reduce or eliminate pesticide use, reduce the use of fertilizers, and do what you can to reverse climate change. 

Diverse native plants are important in gardens, too; when planning your garden, think about including a diversity of plants. 

Try Zizia aurea (golden Alexander), Penstemon digitalis (foxglove beardtongue), Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrow-leaved mountain mint), Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), Monarda fistulosa (wild bee-balm), Solidago spp. (goldenrods) or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England aster). And remember — if caterpillars are eating your plants, you’re doing something right!

How can homeowners help minimize the stress that insect/bee populations are feeling?

Converting turf to a bee lawn may be the right choice for you. Or, if you have a large swath of turf, perhaps you are ready to convert a portion of that space into something with more purpose. 

Native shrubs, trees, or a colorful, diverse pollinator garden are all great options. A bee-friendly lawn reduces the need for mowing, minimizes watering, and incorporates more flowers to feed bees. 

Reducing synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use is a great first step in creating a healthier environment for you and for wildlife. Another way to easily help insect and bee populations is to leave the leaves and delay garden cleanup until a full week of temperatures that are greater than 50℉.

What are the best plants for butterfly and pollinator gardens?

Planting a diversity of flowers is the best way to support a variety of pollinators and other beneficial insects. We recommend selecting a variety of flowers in your garden to maintain continuous blooms throughout the season (April-October). 

When possible, try to plant species that are native to your region. Choose plants that have known pollinator value but be sure to choose plants that you will enjoy, too.

How can Rhode Island residents and URI families join the ‘Homegrown National Park’ initiative?

This is an initiative started to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants and creating new ecological networks. One of its main concepts is “small efforts by many people.” 

One person can’t fix a problem as complex and widespread as our ongoing biodiversity crisis; however, many people can do their part to restore a small part of the ecosystem and become part of a larger network and movement. 

Local residents and families can remove invasive plant species and/or plant more native plants on their properties, or volunteer with local organizations in their communities. More than 220 people covering 160 acres in Rhode Island (less than 0.0002% of the state) are currently “on the map” of the Homegrown National Park. Join them!

Alm and Johnson will be talking about Rhode Island’s opportunity to grow as a “homegrown park” and sharing their expertise on the program at Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Transforming the Landscape symposium on April 20 at Rhode Island College; they will discuss native bees, the stresses they are facing and how people can combat those stresses on their own property and in their communities. Doug Tallamy, the founder of Homegrown National Park, will be the keynote speaker for this event; all are welcome; pre-registration required.