Abloom and abuzz

Critters: Welcome to your lively back yard, where birds sing, bees visit every flower, spiders spin works of art, and bats gobble up mosquitoes.

In The Garden

March 17, 2002|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Gardeners may think of the back yard as a very personal place, but a good garden is always full of guests. In fact, they live there.

Birds, bees, chipmunks, butterflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, spiders and lightning bugs make a horticultural showplace more of a home -- which is to say, a thriving, buzzing ecosystem. They should all be encouraged to make themselves comfortable.

Birds and bugs like the same things in a garden that people do. There should be sun, shade, open space, shelter and water, whether it is a fountain, pond or the dancing spray of a sprinkler. The same trees, shrubs and flowers that express the gardener's style and are a delight to behold also provide food and shelter for helpful insects and wildlife.

You don't need to arrange accommodations for all the visitors to your backyard habitat. But you can decorate the garden with all sorts of good-looking and ingenious creature comforts to encourage a greater diversity of insects and wildlife. More and more people are placing birdhouses, bee boxes or blocks, toad abodes and other amenities in strategic places in their gardens.

"This is a big growth category for us," says Cindy Goodenow of Gardener's Supply Co. "I definitely think it's the combination of something that looks smart or cute in the garden, and something that works, that attracts a particular species."

People have always put up birdhouses. Nowadays, roosting pockets, which look like tiny baskets for chickadees and other small birds, are "hot, hot sellers," Goodenow says.

Bee boxes, some as simple as a block of wood with holes drilled into one side, are also catching on. Unlike butterfly houses, which were widely available until butterfly experts pronounced them charming but ineffective, bee blocks really do house bees. Even the professionals use them.

"I put up bee blocks in my garden," says Eric Grissell, an entomologist and the author of Insects and Gardens (Timber Press, $30). "I like to see lots of things flying around: butterflies, dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies. I think it's part of the garden -- to have lots of life in it."

You don't have to be an entomologist to appreciate the sight of a bee covered with bright yellow pollen, determined to check on every flower. It's always a good idea to be cautious around bees, but you don't need to fear them. The bees that populate bee blocks and bee boxes are more interested in the garden than the gardener.

A beautiful spider web, glistening with dew, can stop a gardener in her tracks. Spiders are amazing architects, particularly good at drawing delicate connecting lines between art and nature.

A spider web in a corner of a trellis implies a whole new view of the garden. Even if you're a little squeamish about spiders, you might appreciate a handsome formal frame for a web. With a frame, you can get to know a spider on your own terms. Spider-web frames are available at garden shops.

Bat houses created a sensation when they appeared on the market a few years ago. At the time, bats were not the sort of thing most people wanted to encourage, but attitudes have changed, says Kim Williams, director of the Organization for Bat Conservation.

"People now know they are beneficial," Williams says. "Almost all of them eat insects, and they can eat 600 to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in an hour."

With a thriving bat population, mosquito spray is unnecessary, she says. A good bat box might house 50 bats, but the population will never get out of control.

Early bat houses didn't work that well, Williams admits. Today's redesigned bat houses, which have long landing pads and lots of interior room, have an 80 percent occupancy rate if they are installed correctly.

"There is no bat in the world that is aggressive," Williams says. "They have personalities like rabbits; they are very skittish and afraid of people."

It is important to be aware of the need for diversity in the garden, Grissell says.

"A lot of insects serve as food for other things, like birds, and if you want birds in the garden, you need some insects," he says.

Nature should be in balance, even in your own back yard. Pesticides upset the balance and kill good bugs as well as bad.

"Some people have preconceptions and misconceptions, and don't have that much enthusiasm for diversity," Grissell says. "They are missing something."


To find out more about bees, bats, butterflies, birds and all manner of backyard insects and wildlife, do a little research.

* To learn more about bats, contact the Organization for Bat Conservation, 1553 Haslett Road, Haslett, MI 48840, 517-339-5200 or www.batconservation.org.

* The Bee Works, 1870 W. Prince Road, Suite 16, Tucson, AZ 85705, 520-888-7422 or www.thebeeworks.com, provides information about bees and other pollinators.

* Eric Grissell is the author of Insects and Gardens (Timber Press, $30). Theme Gardens, by Barbara Damrosch (Workman, $20), has an excellent chapter on butterfly gardening.

* Gardener's Supply Co., 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, VT 05401; 800-863-1700 or www.gardeners.com, sells a variety of shelters and other supplies to encourage insects and wildlife.

* Wildbirds Unlimited, www. wildbirdsunlimited.com, is a retail franchise system with almost 300 stores across the United States and Canada. The shops sell birdhouses, nesting boxes and other products.

* The North American Butterfly Association works to promote the conservation and appreciation of butterflies. The organization's Web site, www.naba.org, answers questions about butterflies and butterfly gardening. Membership in the national organization includes a quarterly magazine, Butterfly Gardener. To join, write to: NABA, 4 Delaware Road, Morristown, NJ 07960.

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