In my article “When the Fire fly’s Light Went Out,” I addressed a point that should be a universal concern. That is, the loss of native plants results in the loss of native insects that results in the loss of most terrestrial animal populations. Like it or not, we are inextricably attached to native plants as well. In this article, I will discuss the importance of pollination, the metabolic dance between plant and insect, the causes of these losses, and some remedies to restore the balance of native plants and insects.
One well-known connection is that of pollinators with plants. Pollination is the process by which male pollen is transmitted to the female ovule in order to produce seeds, which produce the next generation of the plant. The complexities of pollination, the myriad of amazing adaptations for successful pollination in all types of soil, and weather conditions are not to be addressed, however. To keep it simple, pollination will be wind pollination or animal pollination in this article. Grasses and some trees pollinate by releasing pollen in the air and the pollen lands on the female part of another female flower of its kind. The consequence for humans is that this highly limits what we will eat. With wind pollination as the sole source of human agriculture, we limit ourselves to rice, wheat, and maize. Seventy percent of what we eat requires pollinators. All other food sources require diverse native plants to sustain a diverse and successful ecosystem to feed ourselves as well as all other animals. It is here that we realize the importance of native plants. Even livestock production cannot be sustained solely on grass. Herbivore diets require many forbs (native flowers).
Beyond a few types of trees and all grasses, the remainder of plants succeeds by the evolutionary dance between plants and animals, providing flower advertisement and pollinator reward to conduct pollination. Plants advertise their presence with colorful flowers to attract pollinators and then provide the plant’s pollinator with a reward, nectar. Plants are the base of an ecological food pyramid by which all other living things are fed directly or indirectly. This pyramid may be thought of as a flow of energy. Sunlight converts basic molecules to chemical energy; this energy is transferred up the chain. Animal pollination is primarily a function of insects. There are around four million insect species known worldwide. Forty percent of the insects are herbivores. The remainder are predators on herbivorous insects or in some ways utilize the native plant as an egg-laying site, incubation chamber for developing eggs, or protection as hiding places. Scientists talk about primary and secondary metabolism of plants. Primary metabolism is universal. Plants bear chlorophyll molecules in structures called chloroplasts within each cell. It is this chemical that takes sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to manufacture sugar and oxygen. This is the primary metabolism for all terrestrial plants. We know from the first grade that this process is called photosynthesis. It is, however, the secondary metabolites that are the economic engines allowing plants to compete. The coevolution of plants with insects takes a long, long time. This is key to appreciating coevolution and is crucial to understanding why native plants are so important. Plants and insects have been conducting the secondary metabolite dance for millions of years. Aseachnative plant is removed, many insects that depend on that plant for food or shelter are lost.
Why the concern about native plants? “They are just weeds are they not?” Any plant that grows in the wrong place can be defined as a weed. The most beautiful rose bush that snags your leg each time you walk by because it is too close to the walkway is a weed. More importantly, native plants provide the energy starting point for that 40% of the insect world that is herbivorous. Most animals cannot digest plant material and therefore cannot transfer energy from the plant to the next level, the non-herbaceous animals. Herbivorous insects provide this step. Then insectivorous, omnivorous, and ultimately carnivorous fauna can access the energy stored by plants at the base of the pyramid. But for this to occur, the insect must know the chemistry of the plant: its secondary metabolic characteristics. The insect evolved to overcome the chemical protections that evolved within each plant. Each plant is uniquely designed to ward off most predators except the ones that have adapted. Insects are specialists. By replacing the native plant with the alien plant, the alien replaces the niche of that native. The native insect does not know the secondary metabolic characteristics of the alien and therefore does not interact with it. The loss of the native plant results in the loss of the native insect, which in chain-reaction fashion stops the energy flow up the faunal chain.
The relentless decimation of the native population must be stopped. Humans unwittingly, and sometimes intentionally, remove native plants from the ecosystem. A reason you are reading this article is to determine if you are part of the problem or a potential solution to the problem. Let us consider how humans conduct environmental business. Many Americans look with dismay at the tracks of Amazonian forests that are decimated by logging and agriculture. It is around 15%, yet we do not seem to realize that we have removed 70 % of our forests since our arrival at Plymouth Rock. In the United States, forty-one percent of these forests have been reduced for agricultural needs. By 1986, 69 million acres of viable lands had been removed to manage urban and suburban landscapes. Thirty-two to 40 million
acres (62500 square miles) have been converted into sterile turf grass yards. Asphalt and concrete account for another 43500 square miles of lost native lands, and this has grown by 40% since the late 1980s. Even our designated natural areas (national, state, and local parks) are not immune. Like all other properties, alien plants have infested our parks. These actions combined with the rampant replacement of native plants with alien species reduce yet again the availability of native plants. Most states have less than 1% of their native lands remaining. Each of has the means to turn the tables on the loss of native plants We have converted 95% to 97% of our native lands to human use. We live too short a life. As a result, we do not think of the implications for our children and grandchildren. We build our cities in the most fertile and productive areas worldwide due to water resources primarily. Our wildlife area has been reduced to 1/20 of what the Pilgrims witnessed. Each of us has the means to turn the tables on the loss of native plants. You must first consider the micro-ecosystem of your property. This may include your patio, home, business or more extended property.
Most of us are so far removed from Nature, we fail to observe and appreciate what goes on around us. Observe your own property. Do you have turf grass? Do you have nursery plants? Do you have ornamental trees or trees from other parts of the country? Do you have to water offer? Do you apply fertilizer without having the soil tested to ensure that it is needed? Do you have to apply insecticides, fungicides, or other “cides” to maintain your yard? If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you are part of the problem. Fortunately, it is a part of the problem that can easily and economically be fixed. The fix will not be overnight. You did not mess up your environment overnight. Start by going outside and being a kid. Better yet, take a child outside and both of you hunt for insects on the vegetation. Pillbugs don‘t count. They are not insects. If many different insects are found, then you have a great environment. If not, your yard is sterile, and you are a contributor to severe food shortages and other environmental disasters that your children and grandchildren will certainly face. These catastrophes will make COVID-19 look like a tiny blip in history. Again, each of us constitutes a remedy. There are ancillary items to think about while you consider what to do. If you apply insecticides, you may kill some of the pests; certainly, you are killing mostly beneficial insects and other fauna beneficial to your yard like toads, lizards, and birds. If you apply fertilizer to your yard unnecessarily, most of it is going to go down the street with runoff containing your insecticides ultimately to impact aquatic life. Algal blooms are also a result of this runoff. Now that you have a broader view of why you are an important eco factor, let us address how we transition to a yard of native plants.
If your yard is sterile due to large numbers of landscape plants that have been included, begin to remove them and over time replace them. If you know a Master Naturalist or Master Gardener, solicit their help and advice. Your tax money funds AgriLife Extension offices in every county in Texas. These folks are a wealth of knowledge. Put pressure on local nurseries to carry more native plants. Currently, there is a limited supply because there has been little demand. Create a demand. When you demand natives, the nurseries will pressure their growers and distributors to deliver natives. Wander around town, the county, parks, and fields. Harvest seeds from plants you find attractive and beneficial. You will have to become educated about local plants. There are ample resources to help you along the way. Learn to propagate plants from stems and leaves. It is fun. Allow yourself ten years before you realize a successful transformation. Each year you will see progress, but when you visit the yard in ten years with your child, you will flush up many insects, admire many butterflies and beetles, enjoy more toads, lizards, and birds. You will have saved thousands of dollars. If most of us would replace 50% of our landscape ornamentals with native plants, we would come a long way toward restoring the insect populations necessary for a more balanced ecosystem. You will be able to say you are a good steward of the Earth. “Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your Children.” Kenyan proverb.
Chad Huckabee South Texas Master Naturalist & Guest Columnist, Caller-Times