/ Opinions / Healthy Shorelines webinar looks at pollinators, bee lawns

Healthy Shorelines webinar looks at pollinators, bee lawns

July 10, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

Last month, the Oneida County Land and Water Conservation Department put on a two-day webinar entitled “Healthy Shorelines for Animals, Plants and People.” The webinar in general was very well attended, which was commented on by many speakers. 

The meeting was conducted via Zoom, which gave attendees the opportunity to participate without any travel. I think I have said it before, but it is worth saying again: I really enjoy the Zoom format for these types of meetings, and I think it’s great that participation is so high in these meetings. It really shows how interested people are in the topics and, if they do not have to travel to the meetings, are more likely to attend. 

To me, I think the more people we can get involved in conservation topics, the better. And who knows what the reach is, truly. If a mom is home and attends the Zoom meeting, for instance, are the kids there watching with her? Are they learning things they might not have otherwise had the chance to learn? I would venture to guess there was likely a parent or grandparent or two in the audience with a child who might have come through to see what was up, but then sat and watched some of the presentation.


One of the presentations, put on by Oneida County pollinator specialist Baerbel Ehrig, was, of course, on pollinators and how healthy shoreline and those little critters really go hand in hand. Pollinators, of course, are getting more press, which is helping their plight, I am sure. But they still face a variety of problems. The biggest three, Ehrig said, are habitat loss, pathogens and pesticides.

She talked about European honey bees versus our native bees. As the name implies, European honey bees are not native. They are not adapted to Wisconsin’s cooler and wetter climate, she said. Honey bees need warmer temperatures and are not seen out when it is raining. Native bees, by contrast, have evolved with native plants, making that a much closer match. One fact she presented that I think really put into perspective how important native pollinators are was her example of pollinating one acre of apples. While this can be done by 250 mason bees (natives), it would take 15,000-20,000 honey bees to complete pollination of the same acre of apple trees. That was a crazy statistic to me, and I am sure I was not the only one shocked by those numbers.

Pollinators account for approximately 3% of crop production worldwide. The big issue is pollinator numbers are crashing while the world’s population is increasing, meaning there is much more demand now than in the past. Ehrig said both native bees and honey bees have seen as much as 50% decline from their previous numbers.

She spoke about monarchs as pollinators as well, which I have talked about in this column several times. One thing I did not know was the monarch butterfly is now being investigated to see if it should be placed on the endangered species list. Their numbers have crashed significantly in the last few decades, as is shown in a graphic I included with this column. There are also two other species of pollinators endangered in Wisconsin as well, those being the rusty-patched bumble bee and the yellow-banded bumble bee.

Most of the threats facing these little flying critters have to do with humans, which is not a big surprise. To me, I think it has just been a matter of people not knowing how their actions might affect insects like pollinators. That is why I believe education is key. Once we know what to do or how to do it, it is much easier to take care of pollinators, for example. 

One of those threats to pollinators is habitat loss. We have a great deal of monocultures in agriculture. While it seems on the surface plants needing to be pollinated would be good for pollinators, it is important to remember bees live on the landscape year all season long, and they need to find food sources from spring through fall.

Development, too, takes away habitat, of course. The good news here, though, is even a small pollinator garden, let’s say in front of an office building or on the meridians of a parking lot, can go a long way toward helping pollinators with habitat and food sources.

Invasive species are a threat to pollinators as well. Just as aquatic invasive species often do not provide the right types of habitat for aquatic animal species, often terrestrial invasive species do not provide what native pollinators need to grow and thrive. More than that, though, is an invasive species’ propensity to push out native species, creating even less habitat and food sources for pollinators. 

Disease is another problematic area for pollinators. Varroa mites feed on the blood of bees. Pathogens such as deformed wing disease and Israeli acute paralysis virus can cause mortality in bee populations as well. Ehrig did say, however, that native bees tend to be either solitary or have much smaller colonies, so they are not as affected by passing on mites such as the Varroa mite.

Bee lawn

One of the things Ehrig talked about, which I had never heard about before, is the bee lawn. My first thought was: What a great idea! It really made sense, and I wish I had a large lawn to create a bee lawn now. The bee lawn, she said, is a mixture of grass and low-growing flowers. While it does not usually need to be mowed, it is resilient to mowing. She showed photographs of bee lawns in her presentation, and they look great, too, while being functional for pollinators.

She also said there is no worry about using a bee lawn as one would any other lawn, whether that is playing ball in the yard, having a cookout, or whatever other activities families might enjoy in their yard. One of the best things, I thought, (other than the obvious pollinator angle, of course), is how much less maintenance a bee lawn is versus turf grass such as the Kentucky blue grass found in many yards. I know people spend a great deal of time and money in some instances ridding their “perfect” lawn of “weeds” such as dandelions. Those, though, are great for pollinators, torso best case scenario is we let them do their thing. With a bee lawn, though, it is like a natural turf with flowers and grasses that not only help pollinators, but they can have other benefits such as limiting erosion with their deeper root systems. 

Beckie Gaskill may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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