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Inspiration: Promising Progress With Pollinator Habitat

People all over the world, at wide-ranging scales in varying landscapes, have been engaged in efforts to boost the amount and diversity of pollinator habitat, and we are delighted to share just a few encouraging examples.

Despite news from a recent U.N.-sponsored study that 40% of the world’s invertebrate pollinators and 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with extinction, experts insist that we can, and indeed must, take steps to protect pollinators.

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Building Tribal Capacity for Monarch Habitat Restoration

This past fall, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded 22 grants totaling $3.3 million from its recently launched Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund to support the restoration of up to 33,000 acres of habitat in areas identified by experts as key to monarch recovery. One of the grant recipients, a coalition of Native American tribes, is working with Monarch Watch, a nonprofit outreach program at the University of Kansas, and the Native-owned Euchee Butterfly Farm to increase capacity to restore monarch habitats on tribal lands. This unique collaboration not only helps increase pollinator habitat in a state known for its intensive production of wheat and livestock; it provides green job skills and training to tribal members in a way that honors their heritage and protects the environment. Seven tribes are participating in the initiative: Osage Nation, Muscogee Creek Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Miami Tribe, Eastern Shawnee Tribe, Seminole Nation, and Citizen Potawomi Nation.

“These tribes have a reverence for the land that goes way back,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department of the University of Kansas. “They were very interested in restoring habitat because much of the landscape they have has not been well maintained in terms of sustaining diversity,” said Taylor. “It’s ripe for restoration and they’re eager to do it.”

According to Taylor, the goal is for each tribe to restore 50 acres of pollinator habitat. The approach is to establish a series of “islands” of native plants, which will ultimately become sources of propagules for the entire area of pollinator habitat which must then be maintained. “It’s a long process,” said Taylor. “We’re not going to create 350 acres of pollinator habitat instantaneously, but we are going to establish a baseline for bringing these habitats back,” said Taylor. “It’s a long process.”

A key step in the process is the training of tribal members in everything from identifying native plants and collecting seeds, to processing, storing, and propagating those seeds, as well as planting, monitoring, and maintaining the pollinator habitat. and will include the establishment of seed production plots, creation of demonstration plots and the development of conservation plans, including site selection and preparation, as well as long term maintenance of restored properties. Just last week, tribal representatives came to the University of Kansas to begin that training and learn how to transfer that knowledge back to members of their communities. This May, the first 17,000 plugs of milkweed plugs will go into the ground.

While the training brings the benefits of environmental education and job training to the tribes, a primary motivator for their participation in this habitat restoration initiative is the way in which it aligns with their cultural values.

“The really interesting thing about this is the kind of emotional response that some of the tribal members have had to this project,” said Taylor. “At the first meeting, a Second Chief gave a very moving talk about connection to the land and why habitat restoration was important. I was choked up to see this sensitivity to the fact that we are trying to help them restore broken connections with the natural system that supports all of us.”

Virginia DOT’s Pollinator Habitat Restoration Program

With thousands miles of medians and roadsides within its domain, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) recognized the role the agency could play in restoring much needed pollinator habitat. They also realized the potential for roadway rest stops to serve as waystations for more than motorists.

In the fall of 2014, the agency partnered with the Loudon Wildlife Conservancy, and with a grant from Dominion Power, implemented four pilot pollinator habitat restoration projects. The sites selected for the pilot included park & ride and commuter lots, as well as a rest area. According VDOT State Vegetation Management Planner to Diane Beyer, the 900-square-foot pilot restoration sites, which were planted with 18 species of native flowering plants, did very well.

The pilot projects went so well, that VDOT decided to take what they learned and apply it to the transformation of a 15,000-square-foot area of turf at the rest area pilot site into a pollinator-friendly wildflower meadow. For this effort, VDOT once again collaborated with the Loudon Wildlife Conservancy and Dominion Virginia Power, as well as the Virginia Native Plant Society and Valley Land & Lawn. Volunteers from all organizations installed more than 8,000 native flowering plants. 26 species were used for this effort.

For Beyer, who has more than 20 years of conservation-related outreach experience, an unanticipated benefit of the volunteer planting turned out to be the amount of public attention and interest it generated among motorists who happened to stop at the rest stop that day. “People were incredibly interested, and wanted to know how they could restore pollinator habitat in their own backyards,” she said. “One woman from somewhere in the Midwest said that we had the nicest rest area she had ever traveled through!”

Travelers are not the only people impressed with VDOT’s Pollinator Habitat Restoration program. This past fall, they were invited to the White House by the Office of Science and Technology Policy to speak with other state DOTs about the program. Just last month, VDOT’s Pollinator Habitat Program was recognized by the Virginia Green Travel Alliance as one of the ‘Most Innovative Green Projects’ for 2015.

“It’s really catching on,” said Beyer. “My hope is that more DOTs will realize that we don’t have to manage turf grass. By naturalizing road areas and rest stops, we save money on mowing and herbicide, so we can do something positive for the environment and our bottom line.”

Beyer is now looking at opportunities to integrate pollinator habitat into VDOT’s stormwater management areas, so these efforts can also benefit the Chesapeake Bay.

Urban Pollinator Project

At least 1,500 species of insects, including bumble bees, solitary bees, honeybees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies and moths, pollinate plants in the UK.  With urban areas in the UK increasing, and pollinators decreasing, researchers at the University of Bristol wanted to find out which pollinators are found in UK urban areas and how urban sites could be enhanced to improve pollinator diversity and abundance. To do so, the launched the Urban Pollinator Project.

The first phase of the research examined how pollinator communities in UK urban areas compare to those in agro-ecosystems and protected areas and compared pollinators among urban habitats. They studied 36 sites were located in and around 12 large UK urban centers (in each urban center, researchers selected a site one urban, one farmland and one nature reserve site). Their results showed that although patters varied between taxa in in urban, farmland, and nature reserve sites, there was no difference in pollinator abundance and richness. The study concluded that that improving the value of urban areas for pollinators should be part of any national pollinator conservation or restoration strategy.

The researchers then partnered with local government and conservation NGOs to create 60 urban meadows containing flowers high in pollen & nectar in four UK towns and cities: Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading.  Both annual and perennial meadows were created for sites including public parks, school playing fields, university grounds and roadsides. The meadows varied in shape depending on the layout of the site.

City Academy wildflower meadow

Designed to accelerate efforts across America to tackle the challenges faced by pollinators, the challenge is rallying hundreds of thousands of gardeners, horticultural professionals, schools, and volunteers to create one million pollinator gardens by the end of 2016.  The Network provide resources for individuals, community groups, government agencies and the garden industry to create more pollinator habitat through sustainable gardening practices and conservation efforts.

What qualifies as a pollinator garden for this challenge? Though the Network encourages the use of native plants which will bloom throughout the growing season, and recommends planting in sunny areas with wind breaks and a water source, the only criterion is that the plants used in the garden provide nectar and pollen. That means every habitat of every size can count toward the challenge.

“It doesn’t have to be a one-acre garden,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau and a founding member of the National Pollinator Garden Network. “Even a container of milkweed on your balcony counts, because you are doing something to help pollinators.”

In addition to the National Garden Bureau, the Network’s founding member organizations include the National Wildlife Federation, the National Gardening Association, the Pollinator Partnership, the American Public Gardens Association, AmericanHort, the American Seed Trade Association, and the Home Garden Seed Association. They all support and promote the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge though in kind donations.

Blazek is encouraged by recent news that the number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico have increased from last year, but knows that efforts to support pollinators cannot slacken. “Are we going in the right direction? Yes,” she says. “But does it take even more? Yes.”

One thing it takes, according to Blazek, is educating those in the gardening. That is why Network members gladly share resources and expertise with growers and garden retailers. And when it comes to educating consumers, who are increasingly interested in edible gardening, the Network is focusing outreach efforts on communicating the importance of including pollinator-friendly plants with edibles.

Gloucester County Library System's pollinator garden

“This year is going to be big for us,” said Blazek. Indeed, it will have to be if the challenge goal is to be met. To date, more than 200,000 pollinator gardens have been registered.

You can help the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge get to that goal by creating and registering your own pollinator garden(s), and by spreading the word. The Network encourages sharing of the challenge in social media, or posters using #polliNATION! So tweet and post away!

Pollinator Pathway

The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the group responsible for the recent global pollinator assessment, recommends restoring native vegetation, planting flower corridors and trying to keep natural areas connected to one another as much as possible. One promising initiative that combines all three of these approaches, while also reconnecting us humans to the broader ecological community, comes not from an ecologist, conservation organization, or government agency, but from a designer.

What began as an artist-led public design project in Seattle, WA has grown to powerful model for what is envisioned as a national, ecological system known as the Pollinator Pathway.  In 2007, aware of the decline in pollinators, and the need to reimagine humankind’s relationship with ecological and urban systems, design thinker Sarah Bergmann came up with the idea to create a place to both study and respond to a broader story about nature in our time. After years of researching plants and pollinators, she launched a public design project to create 12-foot wide, one mile-long corridor of mostly native pollinator habitat stretching along a roadway from the campus of Seattle University to a wooded, public green space. Working closely with scientists, designers, urban planners, individual homeowner, and hundreds of volunteers, Bergmann shepherded her vision to life in the form of the first Pollinator Pathway. Today, the Pollinator Pathway is not only enjoyed by residents and pollinators, but it serves as a living classroom for Seattle University and other academic institutions for courses ranging from art to whole systems design. The corridor has been monitored since 2009 by university students and an entomologist from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.

To label the Pollinator Pathway a habitat restoration design project is, according to Bergmann, missing the point. She refers to her work as a “living essay,” a “futurism project” that extends beyond the design of objects, experiences, or landscapes. “What the Pollinator Pathway is redesigning,” she said, “is the relationship between ecology, systems and human benefit.”

With a successful prototype established the framework for such an effort is in place. Pollinator Pathway now helps other communities, institutions, and government agencies to plan and create their own Pollinator Pathways. In addition, Bergmann and her colleagues are developing Pollinator Pathway design criteria. But don’t expect a complex certification process. “There is a clear corollary to the creation of certification and a significant lack of imagination; it encourages following rules and checking boxes instead of observation.” Instead, the certification will involve self-checking based on principles and guidelines.

According to Bergmann, one of the Pollinator Pathway’s greatest achievements, the massive interest and support it has received from varying disciplines, is also one of its greatest challenges. “Each field has its own silo and established perceptions,” she said. Bergmann’s initiative encourages the removal of perceived boundaries that separate disciplines. “That’s one of the number one principles of the project—asking ecologists and designers to work together,” she said. “We need both. We live in a fragmented society of specialists, and we need broad picture thinking.”

Her ultimate vision?  A “global system of ecological design, one that makes more sophisticated exchange between what humans build and what the rest of the planet builds.” Now that’s a paradigm shift worth buzzing about.

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