A few weeks ago, the Irish Wildlife Trust (a facebook group), posted an article about the value of ragwort for pollinators in Ireland (link here). The affection of pollinators for weeds has been demonstrated before (e.g. bees love thistles), and in fact they may be an important component of how some invasive plants* are able to invade new areas. In other words, in order to establish, such a plant has to attract resident pollinators, and sometimes they are very good at it.
Some other popular examples of non-native species highly attractive to resident pollinators:
The mechanisms behind how a non-native species attracts resident pollinators are not clear, though it’s likely that they’re coopting general methods of attraction used by many plant species: chemical and visual attractants.
Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up is not because I’m fascinated about the way that invasive species integrate into pollination networks (though I am). It’s because I was totally shocked by the reaction of the group’s followers on facebook. Especially because, despite being considered a noxious weed, ragwort is native to Ireland. Here are some examples of their rather extreme (in my opinion) reactions to the article:
Not sure how saying ragwort is good for pollinators is living in a fantasy land…
I particularly like the skull emojis…
I especially like this one…stupid scientists!
Of course, there were plenty of more reasonable (to my eye) folk…
And of course the many requisite requests for identification…
The point of all this is it can be hard to stay in touch with public opinion when you’re a scientist. I have some grounding** in the noxious weeds and the opinon of farmers, as I often work with farmers. I baled hay for a couple of seasons with one farmer, so I’m particularly sensitive to the weeds that are toxic to livestock as they would ruin the hay. But it still surprises me that non-farmer types react in this passionate way. I think part of it is, as some commenters mentioned, when they were young, one could be fined for having noxious weeds like this one on their property.
From what I understand, attitudes toward “weeds” in Ireland are changing. Part of this may be widespread declines in pollinators…as I’ve mentioned before, fully a third of the bee species of Ireland are threatened (here’s that link again if you missed it last week).
The fact is that part of providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife means keeping it a bit messy, letting weeds flower, and leaving patches of dead wood and bare earth. Perfectly manicured lawns are a desert for pollinators. Yes, it’s important to minimize the weeds that are toxic in forage hay for livestock, but it’s a weird notion to want to eradicate an entire plant species just because you don’t want horses eating it in pasture (when they’ll avoid it on their own unless they’re starving).
Sometimes I think it is the illusion of perfect control that makes humans unhappy. Agricultural landscapes are among the most managed ecosystems on Earth…we control nutrient inputs, which plant and animal species are allowed to thrive, and the output in the form of crop yield. We control all of this by applying huge amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticide, by genetically modifying cultivars to be resistant to pesticides and to produce ever higher yields…or at least we think we control it. In reality, we ignore the free services provided by nature until we start to lose them. Weeds evolve resistance to our chemicals, pathogens wipe out our monocultures because they lack genetic diversity that would foster resistance. And we suffer greater and greater catastrophes as a consequence of depending on unsustainable and unstable production systems.
Instead of trying to exert perfect control on these incredibly complex systems, maybe we should seek to understand them and integrate with them…just as non-native plants integrate with resident communities of plants and pollinators.
*Those that depend on insect pollinators