Ways We Can Help Nature

The highly important Bumblebees are among our best pollinators.

It was in the summer of 1964 when I was hired to become naturalist and manager of The Ridges Sanctuary that I soon came to realize what wonderfully preserved natural history existed here and also at the adjacent Toft Point area to the east. Miss Emma Toft, famous student of nature, preservationist and member of The Ridges Sanctuary Board of Directors, informed me that few visible changes had occurred in these two natural areas ever since she was a young girl over 70 years ago, in the early 1900s.

What was so fascinating was realizing that those facets of nature which were seen by me in 1964 were essentially the same as those experienced by the Native Americans through the previous several centuries and the first white settlers in the 1860s, more than 100 years ago. What soon became evident in both of these relatively undisturbed old growth forests, the Toft Point forest being at least 2,000 years older, was that countless refugia for important creatures, such as insects, spiders, bugs, salamanders, reptiles, birds and mammals, were all playing ongoing vital roles in maintaining the proper balances which, collectively, have kept these two rich natural sites growing properly.

Understory plants – the mosses, liverworts, lichens, fungi, wildflowers and shrubs – continue to do relatively well although within the past 25 years some species of invasive plants from foreign lands have presented problems. Even the alien Forget-Me-Not, admired by many, is increasing every year and threatening the growth of native wildflowers and must be eradicated yearly.

This jewel-like Common Green Darner is an excellent “mosquito hawk.”

Insects appear to be thriving because of the undisturbed forest floor and marsh habitat they need for reproducing and survival. Dragonflies (the mosquito hawks), for example, are doing very well near the extensive shore and marsh areas. The required breeding habitat for the federally threatened Hines Emerald Dragonfly continues to be in satisfactory condition resulting in good populations of this rare species from year to year. Extensive annual eradication work to combat the incessant spread of the highly successful Phragmites (Reed Grass) must be done every year along the several miles of shore habitat in order to help the dragonflies and various nesting birds.

Birds are not doing as well as one might wish, primarily due to unfortunate changes to their wintering environments, mainly in Central and South America. With only minimal clearing being done along the hiking trails and narrow road at Toft Point, breeding bird habitat is essentially unchanged from what it was many years ago.

The average person will look at the water expanses of Lake Michigan at Toft Point without realizing the severe problems that exist beneath the surface. I’ll always remember Miss Emma Toft shaking her head in disgust sometime in the mid 1960s at sighting the first long, stringy, green, slimy, filamentous Cladophora algae growing on the underwater surfaces of the rocks at the shore. Apparently these unwelcome plants, along with the unbelievable invasion of the water by the alien Zebra and Quaga Mussels, are here to stay.

People of our county should feel very fortunate and be highly supportive of the great work in preserving valuable natural areas being done by The Nature Conservancy and the Door County Land Trust. They have done exceptional work in sustaining what exists here that has been relatively intact since the arrival of the white settlers from Europe in the early 1860s. Another of their accomplishments is stressing and teaching people good land stewardship.

Other groups that excel with their membership in helping the natural environment in various ways are the Door County Environmental Council (DCEC) and the Door Property Owners (DPO). They all will welcome your support. We also shower much praise on the Master Gardeners of Door County. Good gardening practices involving the growing of flowers and vegetables and continuing education of the natural environments of the county.

Docile Paper Wasps are important members of the insect world.

Recently Phil Pellitteri, UW – Extension Entomology Specialist, emphasized with this group the great importance of paying more attention to native insects and ways of helping them. Surprisingly, of the roughly 24,000 species of insects in Wisconsin, only between one and two percent are considered the “bad guys.” Similar to people, along with thousands of creatures in the wild, insects require food and shelter. In return they help tremendously in both plant pollination and preying upon the undesirable insect species.

Take, for example, the 18 species of Bumblebees, considered among the most important pollinators, and approximately 2,000 species of Solitary Bees native to our state. Both are suffering considerably from habitat loss. When you make room for these vital wild pollinators, you can expect plant communities to flourish and the consumers will reap the benefits. Many vegetables, ornamental flowers, trees, shrubs and wildflowers depend upon proper pollination in order to produce seeds of the wildflowers, for example, apples, apricots, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes and squashes. Bumblebees, being very hairy and nicely insulated, are on the wing from early spring right up to the first killing frost. They nest underground and require “un-manicured” areas containing plenty of dead plant debris left alone. Expanses of green lawn are virtual deserts that don’t maintain populations of beneficial insects. Far better are areas of natural landscaping. Strongly consider doing this on some areas of your property. Even the Paper Wasps, very docile insects, are important insect predators in the overall scheme of nature.

Solitary Bees will nest in bee houses and greatly benefit your vegetable and flower gardens.

Solitary Bees, many being very small, can easily be helped and encouraged to pollinate your plants by supplying them with what are described as easily constructed insect shelters or bee houses. Start with an untreated 4×6 or 6×6, or even longer, block of wood. Drill a series of 5/16” holes (variable size holes are good too), around four to five inches deep, but not all the way through the wood. Drill them against the grain and at least ¾” apart. Neat rows are not important. Random spacing is fine – the bees won’t mind! Add a roof to overhang the bee houses to prevent them from getting too much sun. Hang them in early spring out in the open on your garden fence or garden shed at least three or more feet above the ground facing east or south. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the small bees will find these shelters. By the way, Solitary Bees are very sedentary and peaceful because they do not defend a territory as do the alien Honey Bees or the wild Bumblebees, although when Bumblebees are away from their nests they too are very slow moving and peaceful.

Try to plant many flowers, especially blue, violet, white and yellow, which have blooming periods ranging from early spring to late summer and fall. Goldenrods, Asters and Sunflowers are excellent for insects in late fall.

These are but a few of the hundreds of ways we all can help nature in our great county.