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Beauty Bias and Ugly Truths

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Across America, well-meaning gardeners and school children alike spread the holy word of saving the pollinators. Save the Monarch butterflies, the Swallowtails, the honeybees, the songbirds. Save them because they help us, either by bringing joy with their beauty, pollinating our plants, or providing us with a sweet treat. But while we dote on these beauties, who do have their place, why do we come for those doing the same jobs (sometimes a BETTER job) with pitchforks and pesticides?

Pictured above is a tomato hornworm. She (if it weren't for those beneficial wasp cocoons) would turn into a five-spotted hawk moth, who is responsible for pollinating Moonflower and gourds. Scroll through nearly any gardening group on social media, and be met with post after post about killing hornworms, lamenting their very existence, referring to them as monsters. It's a bit dramatic. Comparatively, search out posts on Swallowtail caterpillars consuming parsley, dill, and carrot tops and nearly every comment screams "Don't kill it! Plant more! That will be a beautiful butterfly!"

So what's the difference? Why do the masses not advocate for both native pollinators equally? Because one is a big beautiful butterfly, that prances around during the day, and the other is a less impressive moth that sneaks around in darkness, helping by moonlight? Surely, we aren't that shallow. Let's carry on, shall we?

Adorning even the most suburban backyard, birdhouses have become a welcome staple on many properties. We create welcoming habitats for all kinds of beautiful feathered friends. Baths, feeders, homes, even clear nesting stations that attach to windows for easy viewing. Our obsession with helping and observing birds even took quite the turn when red dye poisoning ripped through the hummingbird population from well-meaning feed stations. And yet, most people cringe at the idea that many of us would exude the same love and comfort towards bats. Bats are facing quite a few huge challenges right now (white-nose, habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, light pollution) and receive far less fanfare. The average bat consumes 2,000 to 3,000 insects PER NIGHT. They do this for free, and you're surely welcome, so please show them some love.

Why is it that the European honeybee has become the poster child of environmentalism? Why not a native species? Perhaps the mason bee? The mason bee is small, quiet, and doesn't belong to a hive, thus is far less likely to sting (some can't sting at all.) But some people actively claim to hate this low-key bee under the (extremely inaccurate) idea that they bore holes in houses. Mason bees actually actively patch up holes they find, with bits of mud. They find pre-existing holes to lay their eggs in, add a bit of food, and pack the hole tight, for safety. They don't provide honey, thus they find themselves on the losing end of the public opinion, or forgotten all together.

In the same vein, the bee and wasp popular battle is perhaps ALWAYS lost by wasps and hornets. Both of these creatures occupy a niche in the ecosystem that truly benefits humans. Wasps are not only pollinators, but also beneficial predators in the garden. The title picture of this post is of the horn worm, covered in beneficial wasp cocoons. The horn worm will die, as the wasp larvae have consumed his insides and are now ready to hatch from their attached cocoons. Similarly, the fig wasp lives nearly her entire life inside a delicious fig. These creatures are not deserving of our hatred.

In all of these instances, the less popular creature is so because of its appearance or lack of provisions for humans. We've created an education bias around beauty. The moth doesn't have less value because it's a few shades of brown instead of brilliant yellow. The bats have no less value than chirpy birds because they have unusual faces and hide in the darkness. The bees have no less value than un-native honeybees because they don't share their vomit.

Our beauty bias is creating an environment that's becoming hostile to some of our most valuable creatures, and once they're gone, we can't regain that diversity easily, if it all. Please consider if your idea of a pest is actually just a lack of education and consideration about their place in the ecosystem, and how best to approach their presence.

If you found this perspective helpful, please consider tossing a few dollars into my virtual tip jar on Venmo: @rainbowrockfarmstead Thank you for making it possible for me to continue creating informational pieces! Love, Emily.

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