Bees and prairies belong together. Emily Dickinson captured the poetic essence: "To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee … And revery. The revery alone will do if bees are few." But reverie won't completely do it. Without wild bees, far fewer prairie wildflowers would set seed and grow. While wind pollinates grasses, prairie clover and many other forbs need native bees for cross-pollination.
"A Bounty of Wild Bees" in this issue picks up the story. Until recently, scientists had not done extensive surveys of native bee populations in Minnesota. With new funding for surveying bees, researchers have found records of 350 to 400 species native to our state. (At the time of our 2009 July–August story on pollinators, entomologists knew of some 120 native bee species.)
How many species are thriving today? Which ones may be declining? This summer, teams of botanists and entomologists are surveying prairies and grasslands to learn more about the abundance, diversity, and synergy of native bees and plants. The teams are comparing restored prairie with native prairie to discover if one habitat hosts bee species that are absent from the other.
Historical records can help inform today's scientific pursuits. So can the perspective of elders. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer draws connections between scientific knowledge and indigenous ways of knowing plants. A botany professor in upstate New York and a member of the Potawatomi nation, she looks at the natural world from multiple points of view. In one essay, she recounts a research project by one of her graduate students. The student designed an experiment to find out how different ways of harvesting sweetgrass might be affecting the native grass. Indigenous women, who harvest sweetgrass to make baskets, first posed the question. They'd observed that untouched sweetgrass dwindled or disappeared from historic sites.When the student proposed her experiment to a faculty committee, some doubted the value of testing a theory based on indigenous ecological knowledge. After two summers of gathering data and then analyzing it, she returned to the committee and presented her findings: "Sweetgrass flourishes when it's harvested and declines when it is not." To explain her results, she had to speak the language of science, not of traditional knowledge.
In another essay, Kimmerer recalls her own early passion for knowing plants. When she started college, her freshman adviser asked her why she wanted to major in botany. She thought carefully and then replied, "To learn about why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together."
To her dismay, he said, "I must tell you that that is not science," and advised her to enroll in general botany to learn what science really entails.
"In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university, I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companions … into the realm of science," Kimmerer writes. "The only way I could make sense of it was to conclude that the things I had always believed about plants must not be true at all." Much later, with more life experience, she was able to recover her lost way of knowing and reconcile her academic education with ancestral wisdom.
In this issue "Glendalough" shows resource specialists and others working to revive tallgrass prairie at the state park. To learn how to piece together lost landscapes, they first studied historical maps and land survey notes. Then they began to harvest seeds from the park's remnant native prairie and sow them in old fields. Now, 20 years hence, restored prairie flourishes at Glendalough State Park. And the resource specialists hold claim to knowledge gained from work on the land.
Native bees know prairie wildflowers—which ones to visit for carb-loaded nectar and protein-packed pollen. On a single foraging trip, a bumblebee usually selects flowers of the same species. Dusted with pollen, a fuzzy bee flies from one goldenrod to the next. With brilliance, a golden flower lures the bee to land and leave behind pollen from another goldenrod.
Yellow and purple are complementary colors to bee eyes, as well as to human eyes, Kimmerer says. By growing together, goldenrods and purple asters "receive more pollinators than they would if they were growing alone," she suggests. "It's a testable hypothesis; it's a question of science, a question of art, and a question of beauty."
Many ways of learning can cross-pollinate and enrich our understanding.
Kathleen Weflen, editor