PRFCT Perspectives

Tagged with "Pesticides"

Brown Belted Bumblbee By Steven Mlodinow

The Buzz on Native Bees

December 13, 2023

This is part of a series with Gardenista , which ran on December 14, 2023.

[Top] The Brown-belted bumblebee is native to much of the U.S. It gets its name from its thin reddish-brown “belt.” Photo Credit: Steven Mlodinow

It’s winter. The trees are bare, the ground is (hopefully) covered in fallen leaves, and the palette of the landscape is muted. While it might look barren, there is a whole world living just out of sight. “Native bees might not be buzzing now,” says Sarah Kornbluth, a field associate in Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. “But they are all around us, hibernating in soil, stems, cavities, standing dead vegetation, and leaf litter, ready to emerge next spring.” There are more than 3600 described species of native bees in North America, from large fuzzy bumblebees to tiny metallic green gems, some sporting masks and others flaunting their extra-long antennae, living in forests, deserts, tundra, meadows—basically anywhere there are flowers. While they might not get as much attention as, say, monarch butterflies, they are vital pollinators to our ecosystem and food web. They are also in trouble. Native bees are struggling due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and competition and disease from non-native honeybees. [To learn more about how honeybees compete with native bees, read this piece from Xerces Society.] At The Battery in downtown Manhattan, the garden team is working hard to support them. They removed their honeybee hives and are incorporating more pollinator-friendly native plants into the gardens, says Jennifer Bishop, zone gardener at The Battery. They’re also about to embark on a pollinator survey with Kornbluth.

“The Battery's been interested in learning a lot more about all of the organisms that use the garden besides humans to incorporate into their education programs and landscaping management practices,” says Kornbluth. “I'm very interested in knowing which bees are living where, what they need, and how we can provide for them. When you look at a bee community, you can learn a lot about what resources are available because you can see what specialist bees are thriving where. Are there bees that prefer soil nesting or cavity nesting? What nesting habitats are being provided here? What flowers do they prefer? What is the community telling us about what the habitat is rich in or poor in?” Kornbluth and team started with a preliminary study of native bees at The Battery this year and will launch a full survey in 2024.

The team surveys the population by observing and collecting species with nets and by setting passive traps. The traps, which they call bee bowls, are plastic cups painted fluorescent yellow or blue, or white. These colors mimic the color of the nectar guides that flowers use to lure pollinators to visit. The cups are filled with soapy water to trap the insects. “We then collect, pin, and identify each species and will make observations of species we can identify without killing,” says Kornbluth. They will also post photographs of bees on iNaturalist for identification.

“The priority in gardening is no longer just about mastering an aesthetic,” says Bishop. “There is a shift toward being more mindful and ethical. We need to embrace the natural systems that we've just forgotten about.” Here’s what you can do at home.

Grow native plants in your garden.

 Native insects coevolved with native plants. They’re part of an intricate food web system. For most organisms, non-native plants are like “plastic fruit in a fruit bowl,” says Kornbluth. “It may look good, but they won’t be able to eat it.” While nectar-eating insects are able to enjoy the sugary, calorie-rich nectar from a wide range of flowers, “pollen, which bees need to feed their young, is more likely to come from the local native species that they have been coevolving with them for many thousands of years,” says Kornbluth. At Perfect Earth Project, we advocate for at least two-thirds native plants in your garden.

Don’t use pesticides.

Even organic ones. Pesticides (and that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) don’t discriminate and will kill all insects—not just the ones you’re targeting. When selecting plants at the nursery, ask to make sure they haven’t been treated with pesticides of any kind, especially neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide that is absorbed by the entire plant rendering every part poisonous to pollinators.

Battery In Snow

The Battery leaves the stems intact over winter where they provide homes for insects and structural beauty all season. Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Battery.

Provide Nesting Spots

Native bees nest in the ground and in stems and wood piles. “It’s important to remember that the standing dead vegetation you see is full of bees,” says Kornbluth. Try not to cut back stems when flowers are done blooming, but leave them for the bees. If you’re concerned about how that’s going to look, visit The Battery, says Bishop, and see how pretty it is all winter long. “Embracing a plant’s complete life cycle—from seedlings in spring to seed head or grass mound in winter—is a Piet Oudolf trademark,” says Bishop of the visionary Dutch landscape designer who created the garden’s master plan. “At The Battery we continue to display the array of forms and textures a plant possesses. By not deadheading we allow the life cycle to stay on display and integrate into design year-round. And this decay becomes abundant living matter and nest material for pollinators.” It’s also beautiful. “I love the aesthetic: the decay, structure, and different textures of every plant—they each have their own kind of personality,” says Bishop. But if you must cut some stems back, Kornbluth advises to leave last year’s stems as high as you can. While you’re at it, leave the leaves. In addition to feeding the soil, fallen leaves provide insulation for ground-nesters, like bumblebees and mining bees, as well as other hibernating organisms. “It prevents the surface of the earth from getting too cold, which impacts their survival over the winter,” says Kornbluth.

Look and Learn

“Do a small insect safari at home,” suggests Kornbluth. Bishop has been doing this in her own backyard in Westchester New York and happily admits the glee she feels when finding new species in her garden. “Give yourself the opportunity to be meditative and peaceful,” says Kornbluth. See who's coming to eat. What do you notice about them? Do you see one with full pollen baskets (indentations on a bee’s rear legs that are covered in stiff hairs that trap pollen)? What plants are they visiting? When are they appearing? Share what you find on iNaturalist. “The whole process is very eye-opening, engaging, and connecting.” You’ll be amazed at what you discover. “Pollinators are often a very good indicator of ecosystem health because of their connectedness with plants,” says Kornbluth. “Plus, they’re adorable.”

Let’s meet some native bees:

Photos by Jennifer Bishop, unless otherwise indicated.

Queen Eastern Bumblebee Usgs Bee Inventory And Monitoring Lab

Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Common Eastern Bumblebee

Bumblebees are social, living in colonies. Kornbluth describes their life cycle like this: The queen overwinters, hibernating in her hidey-hole or hibernaculum, an underground spot like an abandoned mouse burrow that she had chosen the previous spring after mating. Then she comes out in the spring and starts to collect pollen and lay eggs. As her daughter workers become larvae, she feeds them, they pupate and become adult workers. Then they take over a lot of the jobs. She lays more eggs. The queen has all summer to build her nest until she produces new queens in late summer or early fall. Then she dies and the cycle continues. A closeup of a queen, Bombus impatiens.

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ABOVE is a female Eastern Bumblebee with full pollen baskets. “We think that bumbles are great to include because they are some of the easiest native bees to spot and learn about,” says Kornbluth.

Masked Bee 3

Masked bee

These tiny bees are solitary, nesting in twigs and stems. Since they’re so small, they prefer small flowers, even “ones we might not really notice, like those found in an alternative lawn” says Kornbluth, and because of their size, they can go deep inside flowers to get nectar. Not particularly hairy, they don’t carry pollen on their bodies, like other bees, but carry it in their “’crop,’ the upper part of the digestive tract.” It doesn’t get digested but is regurgitated when the bee gets back to the nest. “Many species of bees use their crop to carry nectar or water, but the masked bees also use it for carrying pollen,” notes Kornbluth. This masked bee was spotted foraging on snakeroot in Bishop’s garden. “It’s a super rigorous perennial with firework white flowers,” says Bishop, who cautions that it can spread vigorously.

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Only females have pollen baskets, as you can see on this fuzzy Brown-belted Bumblebee. Kornbluth explains how you can identify them: “A female Brown-belted bumblebee has 5 visible stripes (or segments) on its abdomen. The first stripe (closest to the thorax) has yellow hairs, the second stripe has a patch of yellow to brown hairs in the middle and black hairs on the sides. Stripes three, four, and five have black hairs and are hard to tell apart.” These large ground-nesters can be found in prairies, meadows, and fields where they reuse abandoned burrows or cavities.

Green Sweat Bee Augochloropsis Metallica, Female, Usgs Bee Inventory And Monitoring Lab

Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Green Sweat Bee

Sweat bees are small, docile, and great pollinators. They are also attracted to salt. Some are even attracted to mammal sweat. “People often mistake bright green sweat bees for flies,” says Kornbluth. One way to distinguish between the two is to look at their eyes. “Fly eyes take up more than 75% of a fly's head, while bee and wasp eyes take up less than 50%,” she says. “You'll be surprised how visible insect's eyes are once you're looking for them!”

Img 6996 Male Longhorn Bee

Male Longhorn bees feature very long antennae. These bees are specialists of Asteraceae, and especially love sunflowers. Look for them buzzing about in July and August.

Img 6823 Female Longhorn Bee

The pollen basket of the female Longhorn bee sits on much of its hind leg. It’s composed of dense hair to help trap pollen as it flies from flower to flower.

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This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on October 20, 2023.

Photo: A detail of a planting in the Bosque garden, designed by Piet Oudolf. Oudolf created a horticultural master plan for The Battery in 2004. Rich with texture, color, and fragrance, the gardens are filled with perennial and native plants designed to be enjoyed year round.

For two decades, The Battery has been a model for public parks and sustainable horticulture in New York City and beyond, proving that what we work toward at Perfect Earth Project is possible—and beautiful: You can plant drop-dead gorgeous landscapes for biodiversity. You can care for these perennial gardens, which are designed by a world-renowned designer, without any toxic chemicals—and do it for decades. You can create and plant a playground to handle floods from ever-frequent storms. You can nurture old-growth trees. You can grow an organic farm right in the middle of downtown Manhattan and use it to teach and feed people. You can do all of this while welcoming millions of people 365 days of the year—for free.

The powerhouse behind The Battery is Warrie Price, the founder of the nonprofit Battery Conservancy, which “designs, builds, maintains, and activates” the park. It doesn’t surprise me at all when autocorrect changes “Warrie” to “warrior.” She’s been a beloved and fierce advocate for conservation and sustainable horticulture for decades. “I think we have done an extraordinary project that began so small, but then really took off because how can you not want to keep making things beautiful?” she says. “At The Battery Conservancy, we like to say we’re ‘devoted to wow.’”

Price shares her thoughts about The Battery.

How did The Battery Conservancy begin? How did this park come to be the beloved place it is today?

I was asked by Betsy Barlow Rogers to create a nonprofit for The Battery. The park had a master plan created by landscape architect Philip Winslow, who sadly died before the project could begin. But Betsy said make sure you’re in accord with it, because if you can't visualize, if you can't be excited to implement it, then it’s going nowhere. The master plan is the skeleton of the park, the guidelines. But there was no horticulture, no horticulturist on the team at the time, no playground, no bikeway, no urban farm. Still, it provided the guidelines, and we review it every time we make a change in the park. After reviewing and embracing the master plan, I created The Battery Conservancy. We started with the promenade. We hired Piet Oudolf, who was not well known here at the time. He created a master horticultural plan. I think his genius is bringing the natural world into this romantic environment. In 2003, Piet first designed the Garden of Remembrance after 9/11 to honor those we lost, those who made it home safe that day, and those who would come later. It was created by private funding and a whole lot of volunteer hands. We’ve been able to enjoy them for 20 years, but they’re now about to go through reconstruction with the changes to the park. [Oudolf’s other contributions include the Bosque gardens, woodland plantings, and the bikeway.]

I think from the beginning, I wanted to make the park its own destination, not just a passageway. It was important to me personally because of its rich heritage.

What do you need for a successful garden?

When you’re planning a garden, whatever type it is, you need two things to ensure its success: authenticity and a program for how you’re going to use it. First, you have to be authentic to the landscape. Take the time to understand the history of the land, its topography, geography, and soil. Then, the second thing you need is a program, visualize how you’re going to use the space. If you don't have a program, if you haven't visualized how you want to be there, enjoy it and be a part of it, you're going to have a failed garden.

Why are public parks and gardens important to city life?

Beauty never stops healing the soul, and gardens are beautiful: green gardens, multi-color gardens—all plant life. Also, public parks and gardens in cities are unexpected, so they're cherished. They get people to stop because there is always something of interest happening, especially in a perennial garden. When you come to The Battery every week, you'll see the gardens change and evolve.

Our goal at The Battery is to enhance life mentally and physically. When you physically walk through the gardens, you interchange with nature. Mentally there’s a quiet sense of what beauty does to get your mind concentrating on something. That's an additive to good health and a good feeling versus dealing with the stress and the problems that surround you in a very urban setting.

Why was it important to be toxic-free from the start?

I learned a lot about conservation from Mrs. Johnson. [Price was college roommates with Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President and Lady Bird Johnson (or Mrs. Johnson as she called her), and lived at the White House for a time. She helped Lady Bird Johnson found the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX, where she is also a founding director.] When we started the Battery Conservancy, I always thought, no pesticides, no herbicides. We’re small. We can afford to pull our weeds ourselves. We can think of other ways instead of chemicals. For example, we’ll use integrated pest management like beneficial nematodes instead of toxic sprays. Nature has remedies if you’re knowledgeable. We worked with Rutgers to pick the best turf blend for the lawn we do have. We love our nitrogen producing clover in the lawn. The parks department found our perennial gardens to be much more economical than cutting hedges and mowing lawns all the time. We have a slogan: plant our parks. We want to set a standard for both public park design and maintenance. The gardens here are the essence of what the park is.

Untitled Design

Thanks to the efforts of Warrie Price and The Battery Conservancy, cracked and barren blacktop was transformed into a perennial haven planted for biodiversity and beauty—and always taken care of without toxic chemicals.

What are you doing for biodiversity?

We’ve been working with Audubon NYC and now have more birds in the park than ever before. We leave seed heads during the winter and have planted different types of ornamental grasses and habitat. We’re a destination for migratory birds. They're so beautiful, and they bring such life. We're also a Monarch Waystation [A habitat designated by Monarchs International that supports migration and reproduction of Monarch butterflies]. We’ve planted milkweed. They also feed on Agastache and other flowers as they make their way south. We’re feeding them along the way.

We have also decided to support our native bees as much as possible. We will no longer be hosting European honeybee hives in the park because we know our native bees need uninterrupted space for themselves. Bees are great communicators of life. They give hope when you see their populations increasing.

We want everyone to “leave the leaves'' instead of throwing them away. They fertilize the lawn and become habitat for insects during the winter. And then of course, we’re toxic-free. We cultivate everything—our urban farm, forest farm, all the gardens, lawn maintenance—without chemicals and always have. We can all be conservationists.

What are the challenges of having a public park during climate change?

The evolution of The Battery is always about change. We have to adapt to the garden’s needs—and those needs change. I would say every 20 years the needs must be re-evaluated and adapted. We certainly see this now.
For a thousand years, there has been the relationship of landscape to water. As I mentioned earlier, we’re about to go through some changes. The promenade is being totally rebuilt. It will be elevated six feet to handle rising sea waters from climate change. There will still be the Gardens of Remembrance, they’ll just be different. They will be more like embankment gardens because everything will be raised up high and you'll walk up to the promenade versus down to it the way you do now. We hope the project will be completed by 2026.

We recently completed a playscape, which was designed after Hurricane Sandy, to flood and recover. Instead of ignoring this flood prone area, we reimagined it for play. We want to be a model for waterfront flood prone areas all over the world. Come talk to us about creating bioswales and reserve tanks under climbing structures and climbing mounds. Ask us about designing with salt-tolerant plants that like wet soil. A couple of weeks ago when we had a deluge of rain from a storm, the playscape didn’t flood. We don’t want municipalities to leave these areas dormant. We've learned a lot. We're now able to share that knowledge with others.

For so long this park was all about water gazing, to paraphrase Melville, and now it's a landscape about learning. It's a landscape to impart so much knowledge through our gardens, through our biodiversity, through our birds, through our bees. They’re all telling great stories. I think about the evolution of how we are today, how our “learning landscape” has evolved through our programing. This transformation, these 30 years of designing and rebuilding, we now have this transformed landscape of 25 acres, and gardens and horticulture—no pesticides, no herbicides have been a huge part. We continually say no to things that were very much part of traditional park management.

Do you have a favorite time in the garden?

I love the beginning of the morning. The light is so magnificent because it reflects off the waters. But then the sunsets are fabulous, especially now. I also adore being by the fountain in the middle of a warm day. I watch all the children playing surrounded by plants—the coolness of the shade and the refreshing water sprays. I’m happiest when I see the way people interact with the garden—especially the children. I think, you know, it worked. The people make the programs come alive. We’re free to the public and open 365 days of the year, 24 hours of the day. And the impact is so much bigger than just us. It's so much bigger than downtown. It's so much bigger than any other park. Gardens are beautiful. You can never underestimate the power of beauty on mental and physical health.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


The densely planted gardens are magical in fall.

Photos: Courtesy of The Battery Conservancy

Woolly Beech Aphid

Beech Patrol

June 28, 2023

Radicle Thinking by Edwina von Gal

We do love beech trees: American, European, copper, weeping. They are all magnificent. Their impressive size and gnarly solidity stand out for permanence and imperturbability. But, they are not invulnerable. Along with the many challenges all plants are facing, beeches have more than their share of problems, including phytophthora fungus, beech bark disease, and now the mysterious and deadly beech leaf disease.

While phytophthora fungus and beech bark disease are fairly well understood and treatable with non-toxic natural processes, beech leaf disease has all of us PRFCT land care types thinking hard about what to do when beloved trees become afflicted. The cause, now identified as a nematode (microscopic worm), is not well understood. As a result, no one knows the best way to control it. The main option being offered to treat it, though, is a chemical fungicide called Broadform, which is highly toxic to people and pets and lethal to beneficial organisms. It is so toxic that New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had to make a special dispensation to allow its use for residential ornamental plants. And, yet no one knows if it will even be effective. Is it worth it to bend our resolve and put our children and pets in harm’s way to possibly keep a treasured tree holding on until we know more about the disease and have better solutions? I don’t know. I can only suggest that people make their own decisions based on as much unbiased (no income potential) input as possible until we learn more. I will update you as I find out more about this disease.

But there is another part of this story I am thinking about: the woolly beech aphid. Also known as the boogie woogie aphid, it is a fuzzy, sucking insect that lives on the underside of beech leaves and “dances” by raising its hind legs when threatened. (Watch them boogie down here.) It is harmless to all beeches, but a nuisance to humans because of the large amounts of clear, sticky “honeydew” produced. This gooey sap (aphid poop) drips on objects below (cars, benches, you) and then attracts an unsightly, but also harmless, dark “sooty” mold. Since these aphids don’t hurt the tree, I let them be, waiting for predators to show up and feast on them and reduce the goo. But this year I’ve been asking, where are the predators?

Right now, woolly aphids are far more numerous than normal, which is not surprising. When host plants become weak from causes such as disease, pests, like aphids, thrive because it is easier for them to get their sucking parts through struggling cell walls. Beneficial insect predators (lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps) typically show up when aphid populations are large enough to attract their attention. They feast, multiply, knock back the aphids, and then move on when there isn’t enough left to eat. It can take a season or two for this natural, balanced prey/predator food cycle to complete.

The problem with this year’s woolly beech aphid infestation is not just that the beeches have been weakened by problems like beech leaf disease, but that predator population numbers are also alarmingly low. The ladybugs, lacewings, and other hungry friends just aren’t showing up. Can their dwindling populations be a consequence of widespread spraying for ticks and mosquitoes? All insecticidal sprays, even the “organic/natural oil” ones, kill. They don’t just kill ticks or mosquitoes. They also kill the bugs—butterflies, lacewings, bumblebees—we love and need. When people resort to chemicals to control pests, they destroy the food sources for beneficial insects, which eventually destroys the beneficials themselves. The cycle of natural pest control is broken.

My request to you is: Put down those insecticidal sprays. Nature, if given time, can take care of pests—if we can be patient and let them. There’s always something that will eat the pests we wish to control. Waiting and thinking before acting always brings new observations, insights, and a peaceful interaction with our natural world. While I’m waiting and observing, I will take my hose and simply wash off just the aphids on the branches that hang over my picnic table and leave the rest for the food web.


Quote: “When you surrender, the problem ceases to exist. Try to solve it, or conquer it, and you only set up more resistance.” —Henry Miller, A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932-1953

Book: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon

Rebecca McMackin recently recommended this book. It is a seminal work, which opened the environmentalist conversation about indigenous land management practices and sustainability. A seriously thought-provoking history of land use and resource management, it raises so many questions about preconceptions of what was and what we are doing now.

Woolly Beech Aphid photo by Haruta Ovidiu, University of Oradea,

Abby Clough Lawless. Farm Design

Which Way to Spray

May 01, 2021

For reasons both good and bad, the environment is so in fashion.

Earth Day is BIG.

Lots of causes, lots of requests. I am asking too. But, not for a donation; not to sign a petition; but for something not to do.

Please don’t spray your yard for ticks and mosquitos.
Why? Because there is no proof that it reduces tick borne diseases. ( And because tick sprays (even the organic ones) kill much more than ticks: they kill butterflies, and bees and fireflies. They aren’t good for you, either (

What to do?

Spray yourself: You are the target, so put the spray where it is of max effect and minimum harm: on you and your clothing.

Check yourself: The most effective preventive measure of all. Property spray programs give people a false sense of security and they stop being vigilant. There is no way that blasting your garden with a pesticide can guarantee that you are never going to encounter a tick, but it sure will mess with the lives of your pollinators and birds.

Please take a moment this Earth Day think about it. If it is safer for you, your family, pets and the earth, why wouldn’t you spray yourself, not your yard? Choose a spray with picaridin, it’s not “organic” but it is least toxic and very effective. (

And, if you haven’t already, check out Two Thirds for The Birds, and learn more beautiful actions you can take, for free, to help the health of the planet, you and your pets.

Coming Events:
Tues May 4, Free Webinar: basic toxic free landscaping Edwina von Gal/Rodale Institute

Weds May 19 Presentation: Holly Merker, author of “Ornitherapy” and Edwina von Gal, PRFCT Earth Founder, hosted by Southampton Arts Center

April 9, 2020

The PRFCT Relationship

April 09, 2020

Why not take advantage of this at-home opportunity to get to know your property better -- to work on your relationship? Have you spent quality time with your place, looking and listening? Learning from it. Do you understand and embrace its needs? How do you decide what is best for it? All on your terms?   
Go outside and take a good look at every square foot of your place, without judgement. What is going on? What is doing just fine, and what needs you? Appreciate all that is beautiful that happened all on its own. 
You and your land have been living together;  is it time you took a vow to be true to it? No cheating.  A relationship based on mutual input, not domination.    
What does that mean? This year’s PRFCT Tips will be your guide. 
Step One: Review all the maintenance and fertilizer/pesticide treatments you or your professionals have been applying to your property. What are they? Why are they needed?  
Check out their health and environmental effects here:
Or email us with questions: 
Go back outside. Is your property bursting, buzzing and chirping with life? Treasure it. Make that vow: I will do this place no harm. Practice.  

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