Earth Day: A Day for Science

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“What do we want? 

Evidence-based science!

When do we want it?

After peer review!”

-Protest Chant

 

The world is a beautiful place. Science can allow us to better understand its processes, and it doesn’t have to detract from the seeming magic of this planet.

I don’t think we humans (and I mean humans of every culture) knew exactly what we were doing when we brought seeds and cuttings of our favorite plants with us in migration. We felt we were bringing a piece of home with us when we carried our favorite fruits and vegetables. We found beauty in the plant of other cultures, too. In the United States, we’ve cultivated Asian plants and European plants and African plants and so on, and placed them in our yards to beautify our areas. We’ve used plants of every culture for food and medicine.

Plants play a significant role in our lives, and we’ve recognized this for centuries. However, we didn’t quite realize how dependent other living organisms are on plants – more specifically, the plants other living organisms evolved with.

In the United States, goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is a powerhouse pollinator plant that benefits bees, wasps, ants, flies, and an observed 115 species of butterflies and moths. Yet, in Europe, it is responsible for declining populations of insects. Here in the US, mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), though popular among herbalists, is a rapidly spreading invasive that is displacing insect-friendly natives.

If there are too few insects, 96% of the songbird population fails.

I’ll say that again.

If there are too few insects, 96% of the songbird population fails.

How can we learn more?

Science. I can read peer-reviewed articles such as this one, and I also read layperson articles from trusted sources. Scientists can observe the impact of plant populations on insect populations. Scientists can observe how insect populations support bird populations. Scientists, and ourselves, can study, discuss, and draw conclusions supported by empirical evidence.

You or I can also observe these types of impact in our own backyards. If you have a patch of invasive or nonnative ornamental plants in your yard, observe those plants for a year. Are there any signs of someone eating them? Who is eating them? Is it a native insect or other animal? What birds or other animals regularly frequent your yard? (Remember that a birdfeeder visitor doesn’t count in this scenario. The majority of baby songbirds cannot eat seeds!) Write down your observations, along with key conditions such as weather and time of year. Then remove those plants and replace them with a variety of natives. Do your observations again. Is there a difference?

If you’re careful and attentive, my educated guess is that you will see a difference, and that you will be delighted with this difference.

I always thought Earth Day should be every day. By cultivating native plants in our backyards, we will truly help make Earth Day every day.

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