The day was sunny and perfect for a drive when I headed out to Lebanon, Maine where a new beekeeping supplies store had recently opened. It meant almost two hours in the car but I needed to pick up a couple things so I brought along some good music and enjoyed some quiet time to myself. And my mind wandered to wondering about how Joni Mitchell feels about Star Thistle.
The trip took me through a cross section of southern Maine: parts are pastoral and beautiful; other parts are a little ramshackle; and parts are peppered with newly constructed commercial developments. I had mixed feelings as I passed yet another Lowe’s hardware store, Olive Garden restaurant, and Walgreen’s drug. Economic vitality is satisfying to see in a state that’s seen more than its share of financial downturn, but the cookie-cutter sameness of it always gives me a bit of melancholy.
But I had started off the day thinking about invasive spotted knapweed in Michigan. I’d been reading an article a massive eradication program underway in that state and how what’s considered a plus for the environment is a big loss for the local beekeepers. “Star Thistle” (as it is known to its fans) is a huge source of honey in places where it grows and it is unknown if and when the native plants will replace that nectar source. Where I live there is a plant that some people lovingly call bamboo but others recognize as an invasive non-native plant, Japanese knotweed. It makes the most amazing honey – deep reddish amber, slow to crystallize, and entirely delicious. I have some neighbors who struggle endlessly to eradicate it and others who cut it back every year and enjoy it as a dense border planting. I don’t take sides, though I know my honeybees’ pollinating efforts are helping the knotweed to thrive vigorously.
I have a well-educated friend who considers honeybees themselves to be an invasive non-native. She says the honeybees push out native pollinators like bumblebees. Certainly honeybees are non-native; they were brought over by European settlers. Native Americans recognized the “white man’s fly” moved westward just ahead of European agricultural settlements. But I have another well-educated friend who insists honeybees, by helping plants thrive, actually improve the environment in an area for all nectar-loving pollinators. I haven’t done enough research to take sides on this debate, but I would pay admission to see the aforementioned sharp-witted and dynamic women have the argument.
My position on honeybees is well known; I think they’re amazing. In a work of evolutionary master-stroke bees have developed societal behavior and work communally in the superorganism of the hive. This more advanced evolution gives them an enormous advantage over their more solitary competitors. Though they don’t necessarily compete in a zero-sum game. Other nectar-loving pollinators (like bumblebees, hummingbirds, etc.) forage at different blossoms and at different times of the day.
Invasive plants definitely crowd out their competitors. Spotted knapweed, once established, releases a chemical to make surrounding soil unattractive to other plants. Nasty, but you have to kind of admire the chutzpah. And there seem to be plenty of invasive plants that take advantage of the honeybees’ prolific pollinating ability, and not all of them non-native. Just ask someone who’s tried to get a field of goldenrod or sumac under control.
Maybe philosophically I should be consistent with my biases but that’s not how I’m wired up. I’m pro-honeybee. They’re non-native, but are they invasive? I’m not sure how I stand on non-native plants, but I don’t hear a lot of complaints about non-native crocuses creeping across property lines. And I have a self-servingly ambivalent opinion about invasive plants, at least some of them.
Just as one man’s star thistle is another man’s spotted knapweed, one man’s suburban sprawl is another man’s favorite hardware store. As for my opinion on that, I’ll leave it to Joni Mitchell to explain: