letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor: Message of Hope for Our Environment

Supporting Native Bees, Butterflies and Birds

On Oct. 21, 2022, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) held its Annual Conference in San Jose. Key take-aways include reevaluating our relationship with the land, Native American engagement, habitat for biodiversity on private and public land, and non-native plants and invasive weeds taking up spaces where native plants used to grow. As a member of CNPS and the Center for Biological Diversity, I have a message of hope to share.

Scientists refer to the “biodiversity crisis,” the “insect apocalypse,” “the anthropocene” and the like. The decline in Monarch Butterflies is generally understood, but it’s just one of many species at risk of extinction. It is also generally understood that plants are the bases of entire food webs and ecosystems. But it’s important to know that, just as Monarchs are dependent on milkweed, insects depend on plants they co-evolved with. And birds eat insects for protein. The Audubon Society puts 2/3rds of North American birds at risk of extinction.

We are like the frog in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil. I recall a time when every trip to the gas station involved cleaning insects off of the windshield. We may be glad we no longer do this. But we have to know the downside. Insect and bird populations have declined. One-third of the plants in San Francisco’s historical record have disappeared. 

California is one of only 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hotspots.  No other state has greater biodiversity or more to lose – due to human activities. Top threats to biodiversity are human activities and human-driven problems of invasive species and climate change. The first known human-caused butterfly extinction occurred with the construction of Golden Gate Park; the Xerces Butterfly lost its habitat. Landscapers even today are focused on non-native, exotic plant species and even invasive and expensive ones. Palm trees are non-native and cost thousands of dollars to replace, as they die. Lawns require constant maintenance, disgraceful amounts of water and herbicides. Compare native plants, which evolved without any human input.

Three more things about insects and birds: Insects are disturbed by lights. We should keep our indoor lights indoor, and outdoor security lights should be yellow (not LED) and on motion sensors. Secondly, birds baths and feeders should be cleaned regularly and often; they are a vector for disease. The best bird feeders are local native plants. Thirdly, we should keep cats from roaming. They kill birds. In fact, feral cats cleared San Francisco of California quail, our official San Francisco and State bird.

A San Francisco State University study found that of the nine species of bumblebees in San Francisco’s historical record, two have disappeared. And another two species are suspected of having disappeared. The study also found that parks surrounded by gardens of native plants had a greater number of pollinator species and a greater abundance of them. This is a message of hope; anyone and everyone can plant local native plants to support sharply declining populations of native bees, butterflies and birds.

CNPS has 35 chapters. Each one specializes in plants local to their area. Retail box stores may sell “native” plants, but they typically cannot specify native to what location. Location matters. CNPS experts can help identifying and sourcing local native plants.  Joining and volunteering with CNPS are also good ways to learn and to connect with the land. For more information, go to https://www.cnps.org.

Denise Louie

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