DEAR DR. FOX: I am writing to alert your readers to an important and eye-opening book. In Doug Tallamy's "Nature's Best Hope," the author describes the dire threat to our native insect, bird and plant species and proposes a hopeful solution in which we can all participate.
If everyone in the United States repurposed just half of their yards to make space for native species of plants, shrubs and trees, Tallamy argues, we would create a vast network of "homegrown national parks" that would provide more wildlife habitat than all of the national parks combined.
The days when our windscreens were encrusted with squashed bugs and our patio lights were surrounded by a haze of flying insects are now a distant source of nostalgia. How many monarch butterflies did you see last summer? How many luna moths and praying mantises? How many box turtles, salamanders, frogs and toads? If you live in the vast swaths of urban, suburban and exurban America, the answer was most likely precious few, and certainly only a small fraction of what you encountered as a child. Monarch butterfly populations today are a mere 4% of their 1970s levels. And while monarchs are charismatic and more visible than most insects, their fate is typical of about 90% of plant-eating insects.
Major factors contributing to these population crashes are herbicides, pesticides and habitat fragmentation. The well-manicured American lawn, long a cultural norm and status symbol, is a toxic wasteland for most of our native species. The native plants upon which our birds and insects depend have been replaced almost wholesale with introduced species of ornamental trees, shrubs, flowers and turf with which they have no evolutionary relationship. Whereas an introduced ornamental tree might host, at most, several butterfly and moth species (the larvae of which are crucial food for baby birds), a native oak tree can host over 500 species.
This spring, as beautiful as I find the gardens and yards in my neighborhood with their tulips and daffodils and flowering ornamental trees, they now make me sad because they also represent a huge wasted opportunity to support our struggling native species. I live in a condo, but I went online and purchased some milkweed plants for a friend's yard, and I feel a little better. -- B.K., Washington, D.C.
DEAR B.K.: I have raised the issue of private and corporate lawns, public parks, playgrounds and golf courses in earlier columns. They all mean air and noise pollution from mowers; application of fertilizers, which can cause toxic algae to bloom in nearby lakes; and application of insecticides and herbicides, which harm all life -- including that of humans, wildlife and our animal companions. The "perfect" lawn is an abomination -- a creation of the agrichemical industry's cupidity and our collective cultural stupidity.
The Beyond Pesticides organization recently sued TruGreen, the national chemical landscaping company, for misrepresenting the safety of the toxic chemicals that it uses to treat lawns. TruGreen uses the weed killer glyphosate (also in Roundup), which is identified by the World Health Organization as probably carcinogenic. TruGreen also uses another weed killer called Tri-Power, whose label warns of "irreversible eye damage" and "allergic reactions." Beyond Pesticides also urges all states to prohibit the spraying of toxic chemicals in neighborhoods. Widespread exposure to lawn pesticides, which are immune system and respiratory toxicants, can elevate serious risk factors associated with COVID-19.
Time to stop this insanity. One effort to combat the issue is "No Mow May." According to the nonprofit Bee City USA, "The goal of No Mow May is to allow grass to grow unmown for the month of May, creating habitat and forage for early season pollinators. This is particularly important in urban areas where floral resources are often limited."
Read more at beecityusa.org/no-mow-may.
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