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I don’t mean to brag, but it’s come to my attention that I’m rather bee-rich.
My stepbrother was in my yard recently and he mentioned how in his patio garden, just a few kilometres northeast of me, he’s lucky to see a bee or two. I twittered like a socialite on a yacht: a bee or two? My, how quaint.
At any point in the growing season, my downtown Toronto backyard buzzes with at least a couple dozen bees. They’re tricky to count – they are busy after all and not prone to holding still – but it’s practically indecent, my bee wealth, and I’d been taking it for granted. Since then, I’ve been stalking pollinators with my phone, trying to get Google Lens to help me identify them. I’ve long been able to tell my wasps from my bumblebees from my honeybees, but I want to be able to spot a ligated sweat bee, to be sure I have the green-bodied bicoloured agapostemon, the unofficial Toronto bee, in my collection. Now that I know I’m rich, I want to know how many species might be in my bank.
I’ve been gardening in this yard for more than a decade, each year cramming more plants into the two beds and into the margins once the beds are full. Now only an island of lawn remains, and even this I’ve seeded with bee-friendly clover. A few plants have even spilled over to the front, where a linden tree shades an overgrown mat of vaguely lawn-ish weeds. (Please do not report me.)
At first, I grew mostly vegetables, but flowers have increasingly stolen my affection and my attention as the years have passed and now cosmos froth up amongst the tomatoes, dahlias have replaced potatoes as my tuber of choice and the 30-foot-long side bed produces an endless stream of cut flowers. I’ve introduced more native species, too, coneflower and anise hyssop, wild bergamot and serviceberry, liatris and New England aster. It seems my horticultural evolution is pollinator-approved.
The bees aren’t mine, I know, and I haven’t named them or built them fancy pollinator houses, though they often hunker down for the night in the cups of cosmos blossoms. (It’s as adorable as you may imagine.) They are free-range bees, circulating freely in the neighbourhood bee economy.
Realizing I’m bee-rich has not only amused me, it has me thinking about land stewardship and Indigenous models of mutual flourishing. Even one garden can be an ecosystem that supports dozens, if not hundreds, of plant and insect species. Including me, one among many.
Climate change and biodiversity loss won’t be solved by one backyard or even thousands, but it’s a place where we can be benevolent dictators of our own fiefdom, where we can create little microcosms of regenerative worlds. I can’t cancel the Trans Mountain pipeline or end oil subsidies or expand green energy infrastructure but, in the dark of winter, I can push seeds into soil and coddle them under lights hung behind a rail of clothing in my closet. I can let my plants grow a little wild, so there’s more flowering, more diversity, more food and shelter for my insect friends. I can create a little water station for those hardworking pollinators, carefully filled with rocks to perch on. I can let plants go to seed, then fold them into little envelopes for my neighbours. There’s so much wonder and joy in this work – in the smell of damp soil, in the tart gush of a sun-warmed tomato on your tongue, in spying a bumblebee frosted with pollen – which is essential, too, for the bigger fights to come. The garden and all its inhabitants make my own energy more renewable.
Of course, not everyone is privileged with a patch of land to tend. Even mine is merely borrowed. But our cities are filled with sterile lawns and neglected parkettes, underserved neighbourhoods for both bees and humans just waiting for someone to invest time, care and, yes, a little cash in them. A group in my neighbourhood adopted a little strip of grassy weeds, in fact, and now Garnet Avenue has a burgeoning pollinator habitat (plus a cannabis plant slipped in by a rogue gardener chasing another kind of buzz).
I’ve also been thinking about wealth, and how narrowly we measure it. I’ve made my career in the arts – I’ll never be rich-rich. But why should we overlook other kinds of abundance? In the garden alone, I’ve not only a wealth of bees, but flowers, greens, tomatoes, herbs and beans, so many beans. Each summer I cycle through a flush of raspberries, armfuls of lettuce, an absolute glut of mulberries. Much of it I share with my community, both human and non. The mulberry tree, though it casts more shade than I’d care for, is the place to see and be seen for local birds, squirrels and raccoons for all of July. All of this wealth pretty much demands sharing, as anyone who has ever grown zucchini will tell you.
May I humbly propose this natural wealth as the new status symbol? Let’s create gardens and fields and parks and back alleys where many species can thrive. We’ll clean the air and absorb floodwaters, be drenched in food and beauty and wildlife. The buzz will become a constant hum; the cicadas will have some competition. Butterflies will toss and tumble like falling leaves. Abundance will spill from every yard, every neighbourhood an apiary, and we’ll finally prize the richness all around us.
Jennifer Knoch lives in Toronto.
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