Native plants bring bees. Without them, we’re going to go hungry

A bee lands on a mustard plant. Orchard owner Mike Silveira planted wildflowers near his almond trees to provide extra nutrition for bees that pollinate the trees each February.
A bee lands on a mustard plant. Orchard owner Mike Silveira planted wildflowers near his almond trees to provide extra nutrition for bees that pollinate the trees each February. The Modesto Bee

Last month I took my annual pilgrimage to the Midwest to see what I could discover. Among my travels to Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee, I discovered something I consider important to our future as Californians – at the St. Louis Zoo.

“Native Foods, Native Peoples and Native Pollinators” is an initiative started at the zoo which provides education and hope. Its basic concept, as presented in the initiative’s brochure, is to “create a sustainable future for wildlife and for people around the world.”

The initiative works with farmers, gardeners and conservationists as well as with Native American tribal elders and officials, “to help understand and identify food and environmental needs” and “to build sustainable, reciprocal long-term relationships.”

Most intriguing is the program’s recognition of Native American knowledge, history, values and culture as important to “advancing human health, and developing conservation programs that place importance on harmony with nature.”

As someone living in a primarily agricultural community, I’m concerned about the future – especially the quantity and quality of our food supply.

I see hope in our family farms that grow healthy fruits, vegetables and nuts within a farm-to-table process. I enjoy buying and eating the products of local farms because I trust local farmers, enjoy their harvests and want to support their hard work.

Over the past few years I’ve also worked closer to home on a different project that had the potential to connect more than 100 Native American tribes just within California. Through this project I developed a renewed respect for tribal cultures and wisdom – including the idea of maintaining a respect for the planet which the Creator has given humans; to be stewards of the land, water and air around us. Developing sustainability means we don’t use up the resources that should be passed along to future generations.

This is why I worry about bees. Like many other Los Banosans, I realize that too many are dying and not enough are reproducing. Gene Brandi, who has served on national boards of beekeepers, has told me often over the past few years about the declining bee population.

Bees and food intersect. We need all kinds of bees to pollinate crops to yield good harvests – honey bees, squash bees, leafcutter bees, bumble bees and more. In many ways, bees feed us. Without bees and other pollinators we would not have much of the food we have now. Almonds come to mind, especially each spring when I see dozens of hives in local almond orchards.

The St. Louis Zoo initiative believes the more native grasses we plant, the more we can feed the bees that feed us. Part of their initiative encourages planting native grasses along roadways and highways, making it easy for bees to find food they need to help make our food.

The initiative also values the wisdom of native peoples to help in this effort. For centuries, before the Europeans appeared in what is now the United States, native Americans nurtured the land to encourage native vegetation. The St. Louis initiative works with tribes to build on their knowledge in developing land and crops in natural ways.

Several states have joined the research on pollinators, to assist and support habitat restoration and supply gardeners and small farmers with equipment and crop seeds, native seeds, plants, trees and shrubs. This provides hope across the country, including in California, to better use the land on which we live to create healthy foods and sustainable agriculture.

Expanding the growth of natural grasses in public and private spaces will help support bees that pollinate wherever they land – gardens, farms, orchards.

The St. Louis initiative is similar in some ways to the local “Food Forest,” a project started on the Los Banos Campus of Merced College to encourage natural, sustainable food production.

I applaud “Native Foods, Native Peoples, Native Pollinators” and hope it will spread across our entire country – including to California’s great Central Valley. Anyone who wants to learn more can visit the St. Louis Zoo website (www.stlzoo.org, follow the links to the Center for Native Pollinator Conservation).

REMINDER – Tuesday, Dec. 4, is the Empty Bowls event at the Los Banos Arts Center from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets are available from any Rotarian or at the door. Enjoy homemade soup and help provide food to the hungry of our community.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.