Without these creatures, the world would be a much emptier place

Worms, birds and bees — these are a few of my favorite things. As a gardener and nature lover, I can’t imagine life without these three summer icons of the great outdoors. Each plays such an important role in creating healthy ecosystems. Without them, life on Earth wouldn’t be the same.

Worms

Worms, birds and bees — these are a few of my favorite things.

As a gardener and nature lover, I can’t imagine life without these three summer icons of the great outdoors. Each plays such an important role in creating healthy ecosystems. Without them, life on Earth wouldn’t be the same.

Probably, wouldn’t much of it at all.

It sounds like a bold statement, I know, but take bees, for example. They are directly responsible for pollinating the plants and trees that make up one-third of the food we consume, including coffee and chocolate. What would we do without our bees?

Within the bee family, honeybees are in grave danger. A phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD, is decimating honeybee colonies around the world.

The source of the problem has yet to be conclusively determined, but it is strongly suspected that, collectively, pesticides, parasites and poor nutrition are the major culprits.

Although CCD may be out of our control for now, we can still play an important role in protecting the bees that visit our gardens. Avoiding the unnecessary spraying of any nonselective pesticide is a good place to start. That includes organic or synthetic controls. Even applications of Bordeaux mix, a common spray containing copper, to control disease is harmful to bees.

On a related note, birds are a welcome addition to our gardens and landscapes. Their brightly colored plumage and melodic songs are the perfect complement to the plants and flowers we enjoy so much in our gardens.

But in addition to the pure pleasure they provide to us personally, birds too play a vital role in maintaining diverse habitats. Many of our native plants are propagated each year thanks to seed-eating birds that randomly distribute them back into the environment.

Birds are also a wonderful natural pest control since they eat millions of pest insects each year from our gardens and lawns. Unfortunately, according to the National Audubon Society, about 7 million of our backyard feathered friends die annually across America from eating insects poisoned by pesticides.

And then there is the lowly worm.

Not so lowly, really, if you consider all that worms do. They are responsible for providing some of the most essential benefits to what happens below the surface of any garden or lawn.

Known as “nature’s plow,” earthworms create a subterranean network of tunnels and pockets that allow air and water to circulate and roots to grow.

Moreover, their castings (manure) are five times higher in nitrogen, seven times higher in phosphorus and 10 times higher in potassium than ordinary garden soil.

A single acre of healthy earth may contain over a half million worms. But that number can fall rapidly based on some common gardening practices.

Some insecticides are lethal to worms. In other cases, these chemicals may build up in their bodies, which then poses risks of contaminating the food chain, particularly for birds that feed on them.

Even excess levels of salt-based, synthetic fertilizers can affect earthworm populations. Worms are very sensitive to adverse changes in soil-chemical makeup and may relocate to more hospitable environments.

Gardeners and weekend warriors play an important role in protecting some of the most important guests we can ever have visit our gardens and landscapes.

In order to provide the most inviting and sustainable environments for these vital creatures, understanding what attracts, repels and harms them will have a great deal to do, not only with the health and vitality of our own little corner of the world, but, collectively, with the health of the planet as well.

Joe Lamp’l, host of “GardenSMART” on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.

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