What butterflies, bees, and clickbait have in common

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This was taken at a local nature preserve (the most recent butterfly image I had).

This weekend I will be moderating a panel on how, I quote, “the rise of fake news and the decline in local news is threatening our democracy and what we can do to stop it.” One of the panelists is Matt Taibbi, who’s an editor at Rolling Stone and who’s written a few books about the parlous state democracy finds itself in these days. I’m looking forward to it (moderating is fun). Do I think I’ll hear some hopeful words? Probably not.

What does that have to do with gardening? Plenty. In the fifteen years or so since I began to take part in the online gardening discourse, much has changed. It started out pretty great. Many of us were still grounded in print media and tended to bring in books, authors, and magazine/newspaper articles from trusted sources when discussing the hot topics of the day. We talked about lawns, front yard vegetable gardens, silly home remedies, how to make a meadow, how far to take the use of native plants, and other things—many topics that are still big today.

Those discussions often included references, facts, quotes, and—at least in the discussions I was involved in—people were a bit careful about making claims that they couldn’t back up. Well, that concern seems to have disappeared, at least as far as the junk links I see shared on social media today. Particularly if there is a premise that certain practices will help or hurt pollinators, it doesn’t matter what’s said. There are never any references, studies, quotes, or discussion. Just a lot of happy talk about how native plants will save the planet or a lot of scary talk about how you are killing bees by doing x, y, or z. Two recent posts come to mind. I deleted the first one—after laughing at it—from our local Facebook gardening group, and I can’t find it now, either, but, as I recall, the claim was that dryer vent fumes are killing pollinators. Now, I am not saying that this isn’t happening. What I’m saying is that zero evidence was provided in the blog post to prove it either way. It was one of these blogs that have no named authors and no relationships with any organizations, but are always loaded with clickbait and pop-ups.

The second post I did keep but I won’t link to it here, other than the screen shot above. I can understand why someone shared it, I suppose. The headline claims that an increase in meadow restoration is helping pollinators and other wildlife. Well, that sounds very nice. Any proof of this—either that meadows are being widely restored  or that, if they are, it’s helping? Not really. All the links are to other posts in the same blog. A blog with no named authors, no list of affiliate organizations, and a dot-org suffix with no associate nonprofit named, but puhlenty of unsavory clickbait and sponsored links. The images seem to come from wiki. This is just pure-and-simple junk. If you want to call it fake news, that’s fine too. Though I hate the term.

Gardeners deserve better than this, and it pains me to see the proliferation of unscientific, unresearched, unannotated, and just plain stupid information aimed at beginning gardeners or well-meaning people who like flowers and butterflies. It certainly won’t help pollinators. Or anything else, except the pockets of whomever is running these ad-heavy sites.

Just as an antidote, here’s a great recent post on landscape fabric by Linda Chalker-Scott of the Garden Professors. It even includes an academic study on mulches and soil barriers—you know, that science thing. Good stuff!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

16 COMMENTS

  1. Facts with sources!
    1) Yards With Non-Native Plants Create ‘Food Deserts’ for Bugs and Birds
    New research finds that Carolina Chickadees require a landscape with 70 percent native plants to keep their population steady.
    https://www.audubon.org/news/yards-non-native-plants-create-food-deserts-bugs-and-birds

    2) Easy way to find native plants for your yard – click on “What Should I Plant?’ tab at
    http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/

    3) Along with pokeweed some of nature’s power foods for migratory birds include Virginia Creeper, Blueberry, Serviceberry, Elderberry, and Winterberry– all species that would rise up on their own if we cut the mowers and gave them a chance. The Humane Gardener, by Nancy Lawson – page 54
    https://www.humanegardener.com/

    • The cited Audubon article is based on this study: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/45/11549

      The study reaches this conclusion: “We demonstrate that residential yards dominated by nonnative plants have lower arthropod abundance…that function as population sinks for insectivorous birds.” The data reported in the study do not support such a broad generalization.

      The authors have studied one species of bird (Chickadees), in one geographic location, in a short period of time. They inventoried insects for two years in a single month time-frame. They quantify only one variable (plant foliage biomass) in addition to the nativity of plants, the abundance of insects, and the breeding success of a single bird species. The authors have not taken into consideration intervening variables such as variations in temperature, rainfall, pesticide use, etc.

      The bird species studied is abundant within its range. Its conservation status is “Least Concern.” The abundance of this bird species does not justify the dire predictions of this study. The geographic area in which this study was conducted has been settled and landscaped with non-native plants for over two hundred years.

      Liz Licata urges us to carefully evaluate sweeping generalizations that are rarely supported by corroborating evidence. This article in Audubon is an excellent example of the need to do so.

  2. Thank you for this much-needed post. As you say, gardeners have been guilt-tripped into accepting the nativist agenda in the natural world. They need to be reassured that there is little evidence to support that agenda.

    I’m glad to see that you are a fan of Linda Chalker-Scott, the voice of reason on this issue. Have you read her “Nonnative, Noninvasive Woody Species Can Enhance Urban Landscape Biodiversity,” Arboriculture & Urban Forestry, 2015, 41(4): 173-186? She directly addresses the vexing question of why public policies which mandate the use of native plants have proliferated despite the lack of evidence that they are superior in any way. She focuses on this question: “Do native and nonnative woody species differ in how they affect species diversity?” Her literature search found 120 studies from 30 countries that quantified the biodiversity of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and other plants in woody plants and trees in urban landscapes.

    The analysis of these studies reveals that “the science does not support the supposition that native plantings are required for biodiversity…it is clear that an automatic preference for native trees when planning in urban areas is not a science-based policy.” Her meta-analysis concludes: “The published research overwhelmingly identifies diversity, structure, and function as the most important vegetation characteristics for enhancing community biodiversity…In fact, sometimes landscapes require the inclusion of exotic trees and control of natives to maintain diversity.”

    I’m glad that Garden Rant is finally wading into this choppy water. I have no objection to native plants. I am only concerned about all the harmless non-native plants that are being eradicated with herbicides that aren’t doing anyone any good.

  3. I would like to subscribe to the garden professors blog but there is no link to do so. Any ideas? Thanks, loved this post.
    bonnie in provence, france

  4. “There are never any references….”
    “Two recent posts come to mind….I can’t find it now…”
    “The second post I did keep but I won’t link to it here…”

    I love your posts, Elizabeth, but I think your point about the lack of references could have been made better with the links.

    • Oh no. That was on purpose. I refuse to link to these sites. It’s true that the dryer venting one disappeared, but I could have linked easily to the other one but deliberately did not. I don’t think they deserve the honor.

  5. You know, all of this doesn’t matter much to me, which is why I didn’t comment initially. I will continue to plant natives simply because I LIKE them, and they perform well in my yard. I will continue to avoid pesticide and herbicide use because these products are costly, and I prefer using less harsh methods. Also, I hope the birds, toads, frogs, anole lizards, skinks, snakes and geckos, regardless of whether or not their populations are high or low, eat these insects. I will continue to garden organically no matter what you or science says about it.

    • Well. I do everything you do as well. That had nothing to do with the purpose of this post. Nothing. I care about factual reporting, wherever it appears and whatever the topic.

Comments are closed.