Pollinating insects, which are responsible for a significant portion of the fruits and vegetables that humans rely on, are in serious decline.
Baerbel Ehrig, Pollinator Project coordinator for the Oneida County Land and Water Conservation Department, said since the 1950s, in North America, there has been a 50% decline in honey bees alone, and populations of other bees and pollinators like monarchs and hummingbirds are also dropping.
In the modern world, with rising human populations, such a serous decline to wild pollinators has equally serious implications.
“They’re specifically important to us humans in regards to that our food resources, and the more they industrialize agriculture, is directly dependent on pollination through insects,” said Ehrig, who spoke at a pollinator workshop held recently at the Walter E. Olson Memorial Library in Eagle River.
The workshop, titled “Protecting Pollinators is Everybody’s Business. Creating Bee-Friendly Greenspaces,” was attended by 35 people and it not only spread awareness of the challenges pollinators face, but also offered insight into how people can promote healthy pollinator habitat.
As far as the threats pollinators are encountering, loss of habitat and pesticide use are among the most severe.
“A very big aspect of what these pollinators are facing and what’s really taking them down is chemical exposure,” Ehrig said.
She advised that people first ask themselves if they really need to use pesticides on their own yards and if they do they should research the pesticides.
One group of chemicals particularly detrimental to bees are neonicotinoids. They affect a bees sense of smell and navigation as well as their maturation and survival rates.
“This chemical group affects bees and other insets in a very strong way,” Ehrig said.
That, she says, is because they are a systemic pesticide.
“Systemic pesticides would basically move into the plant and it will be in every aspect of the plant,” Ehrig explained. “It’s going to be in the nectar. It’s going to be in the pollen, and that’s how it gets transferred to the pollinating insects.”
A safer alternative, she explained, would be non-systemic pesticides which only affect the surface of the plant.
“It does not affect the insects in the way that systemic ones do,” Ehrig said.
Not only do pollinators need an environment free of harmful chemicals to thrive, they need a diverse environment. Much of their habitat has been lost to urbanization and industrialized agriculture.
“These monocultures that we have put in place in order to feed a lot of people, they create essentially a very low diversity and nutrients for pollinators to access,” Ehrig said.
In addition to the huge single-crop agricultural fields on the planet, monocultures also exist in the form of the turf grass that dominates the grounds of towns and cities.
Ehrig said people can help diversify the environment by planting more of the native wildflowers and grasses in which pollinators thrive, whether that be by planting buffer strips of pollinator friendly plants on the edges of farm fields, recreational trails, and roads or using them in public green spaces, parks, and golf courses. Anywhere there is landscaping there is potential for a pollinator planting.
In fact, anywhere there is turf grass there could be something called a bee lawn. Bee lawn is a mixture of grasses and low growing flowers that greatly enhances pollinator habitat. It can be mowed and it’s resilient to foot traffic.
Ehrig explained that researchers at the University of Minnesota have been working on developing bee lawns and they’ve implemented them in public parks to favorable public opinion.
“The bee lawn would be a great choice because it will improve pollinator habitat and at the same time fulfill our need to have a neat looking surface,” Ehrig said.
But bee lawns are just one of an endless list of possibilities when it comes to pollinator plantings.
Brent Hanson, of Hanson’s Garden Village in Rhinelander, also spoke at the workshop and he discussed pollinator planting projects that he and others have done and he showed images of that work. The dazzling displays of color and shape that resulted from the properly planted pollinator gardens was proof that they aren’t only environmentally friendly but pleasing to the eye as well.
“The visual is very often times important,” Hanson said. “And so these things can be designed and incorporated into a look that’s pleasing to people. Which in many cases is what’s going to be required.”
Hanson is a knowledgeable guide when it comes to what, when, and where to plant, and he has implemented many pollinator plantings for businesses and other entities that demand the final result to be aesthetically appealing, and pollinator plantings can achieve that. But, he says, it takes a lot of work and commitment on the part of the landowning entity to maintain them.
“It isn’t just throwing this stuff in,” Hanson said. “If how this works out is important to the image of your entity, there better be some commitment.”
Mitchell McCarthy, the conservation program manager for the Lincoln County Land Services Department, has made such a commitment.
He has led a project to turn two acres of what he coined “turf grass desert” into a prairie of wild flowers on the grounds of the Land Services Center in Merrill.
Largely funded by a grant from the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund, which covered the cost of the seeds, the planting took place this summer on two acres of steep slopes which were designated for the pollinator planting because of their difficulty to mow.
The two-acre patch was planted mostly with a monarch attracting mix of flowers and was then surrounded by a permitter of bee lawn.
Prior to the planting, the turf grass was eliminated by herbicide spraying and rototilling in July.
On Sept. 25, 2019 the seeds for the monarch mix were planted with the help of over 200 students from area schools.
“They would actually seed portions of the pollinator habitat and they could come back and literally watch their efforts grow over time,” said McCarthy, who was on hand at the workshop discussing the project.
If all goes according to plan, the pollinator prairie McCarthy and his team planted will not only be prime pollinator habitat and a stunning visual display, it will also save Lincoln County thousands of dollars.
When it was turf grass, the converted patch was mowed twice a week at the cost of $165 a week to the county. That included labor, fuel, and wear and tear on the mowers.
As native pollinator habitat, the plan for year one, which will be in the spring of 2020, will be to mow it once a month. In year two it will be mowed just once over the entire growing season and that will take place between April and May.
“The reason for mowing is we heard it will help combat the undesired species or the invasive species,” McCarthy said. “To give our desired species a chance to establish their root system and then start sprouting.”
In the third year there will be no mowing, however, a schedule of prescribed burns in certain areas of the prairie will begin.
“We’re not going to burn everything at once,” McCarthy said. “We’ll always have living areas and minimal burnt areas.”
With such a maintenance schedule that basically eliminated mowing the two acres, Lincoln County is scheduled to save $1,980 in year one, $2,475 in year two, and after five years the county will save $13,200.
It will take just a bit of patience to see such tremendous savings, as it will to see the full prairie in bloom because some of the native plants will be dormant for the first couple years while they develop their root systems.
“Eventually, in three, four years we’ll have a beautiful site,” McCarthy said.
The wild pollinator planting at the Land Services Center in Merrill will also promote plantings elsewhere.
“Everybody is welcome to come and use this site as a seed library,” McCarthy said. “Meaning they can harvest the seeds and take them back, basically check out the seeds, and take them back to their own properties, seed their own properties, and then when their plots grow they can then take those seeds and share their seeds with other people. So basically it’s a big community effort.”
There are a number of organizations that offer assistance with seed species choices and funding for pollinator planting projects and Mariquita Sheehan of the Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Department concluded the workshop by offering a list of helpful resources.
Some of those organizations include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Xerces Society, the National Resources Conservation Service, the National Wildlife Federation, the Bee and Butterfly Fund, Wild Ones, and the Sand County Foundation.
Pollinators are severely struggling, but each bit of space turned into their natural habitat turns the tide in their favor. Therefore every bit of space counts.
“Anywhere we go we can improve pollinator habitat,” Ehrig said. “By just keeping in mind what can we do and in which place and what’s going to be aesthetically pleasing.”
For more information on pollinators and pollinator habitat contact the Oneida or Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Departments.
For more information on the workshop and a full list of helpful resources visit www.oclw.org/resources1.html
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]