Exploring Pollinator Pathways in The Last Green Valley
I’ve been thinking about pollinators a lot lately. Regular readers of this column know I’ve planned and planted a pollinator garden in my own yard. But I also know there is so much more to learn about pollinators, so I was pleased to see the Woodstock Conservation Commission was hosting a webinar about Pollinator Pathways and it was open to non-residents. I didn’t know I would discover a network of people, towns and organizations working to help the beneficial pollinators in our world.
Pollinators come in all sizes and shapes from honey bees, to butterflies, to hummingbirds. They move pollen from one plant to another and enable cross fertilization of plants, promoting reproduction and the growth of new plants. Pollinators are vital to creating and maintaining habits and ecosystems that animals and humans rely on for food and shelter. The numbers vary from source to source, but it is estimated that 75 to 95 percent of all the flowering plants on the planet require pollinators for reproduction. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture that means more than 35 percent of our food grows as a result of the work of pollinators. To put it another way, one in every three bites of food every American eats is thanks to a pollinator, according to pollinator.org
Unfortunately, global populations of pollinators are in sharp decline. The monarch butterfly population is down by 90 percent in the last 20 years, according to the National Wildlife Federation. In the United States, honey bee colonies have experienced overwinter mortality of about 30 percent in the last 10 years, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Germany has seen a 76 percent decline in all flying insects since 1989, according to Krefeld Entomological Society of Dusseldorf.
Here is a list of several factors threatening pollinators:
- Urbanization and suburbanization have resulted in the loss and fragmentation of the habitat pollinators need for food and shelter.
- The widespread use of pesticides and other chemicals in our lawns and landscaped plantings and in agriculture are killing beneficial pollinators. Studies show homeowners typically use 10 times the amount of pesticides and fertilizer per acre on their lawns than farmers do on their crops. In other words, way too much.
- Our region suffers from a lack of diversity in native plants due to the onset of invasive plant species. Invasive plants tend to have a high reproductive rate, grow rapidly under a variety of conditions and can disperse over wide distances by spreading of seed and vegetative fragments. Invasive plants also benefit from the lack of natural controls found in their native land.
- Light pollution and all-night use of outdoor lighting interrupts the life cycle of some pollinators, especially moths and lightning bugs.
Connecticut is trying to support pollinators. The state passed the Pollinator Protection Act in 2017 that outlawed the retail sale of neonicotinoid insecticides. Landscapers can still purchase them. Neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals that are absorbed into the plant and can be present in pollen and nectar, making them toxic to pollinators such as honey bees and native bees. The Connecticut Department of Transportation, the largest landowner in the state, is now planting native, pollinator-friendly plants on median strips and edges of our state highways and limiting mowing until after the pollinator season.
But we should not rely on the state to address this issue. We can do a tremendous amount by considering our own yards and working with our communities. That is where a Pollinator Pathway comes in.
The program I attended by the Woodstock Conservation Commission was organized by Jean Pillo of Woodstock. I have known Jean for many years, especially in her capacity as the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District Watershed Conservation Project Manager and as coordinator for TLGV’s Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program. The Pollinator Pathway program presentation was given by Louise Washer, president of the Norwalk River Watershed Association and a steering committee member for Pollinator Pathways in the southwestern part of the state. She started the initiative in 2017 and the Pollinator Pathways program already connects 88 towns in Connecticut and New York.
You can learn more about the program by going to the Woodstock Conservation Commission website and clicking on the link to the program: woodstockconservation.org/pollinator-pathway
You can watch the program Louise provided by going to this link for the webinar:
I spoke with both Jean and Louise to learn more about the program. It is interesting to note they both came to this important work due to their role protecting water. For Louise it was the realization that “lawns use tons of water and in lower Fairfield County 40 percent of water is used outside.” Simply put, more focus on lawns for pollinators and less on grass are beneficial for the watershed she is working to protect. For Jean “homeowners using less lawn, less herbicides and chemical fertilizers also helps improve water quality within the entire watershed.”
A Pollinator Pathway is a connection between our backyards to larger areas of protected open space where pollinators gather. Instead of fragmented pollinator habitats we are creating connected habitats. To learn more about the program in Connecticut check out the Pollinator Pathway website at: https://www.pollinator-pathway.org/
What can we do to create a Pollinator Pathway in our own backyards? Here is a list of things to consider.
- Plant native plants on your property and manage invasive species.
- Avoid using pesticides and herbicides on your lawn and garden.
- Plant a pollinator garden with species of plants that bloom during different times of the season.
- Consider leaving some bare ground and dead wood for nesting bees and leave some autumn leaves for overwintering eggs and pupae of pollinating insects.
The Pollinator Pathways website is full of resources for you to consider in making your property pollinator friendly. Click on the tabs along the top of the home page for specific topics. You’ll find information on invasive species to learn more about these plants and how to identify them. I was mostly interested in the type and species to plant in my yard and found the tab Your Backyard to be most helpful with sections on native garden designs and a list of native pollinator plants. Other helpful sections in the Your Backyard tab are Rethink Your Lawn and Information About Pesticides.
It would be great if more towns in our region would consider being part of the Pollinator Pathway Program – but it all starts with people wanting to commit to it with their own yard. It would be good to see towns taking leadership roles in installing pollinator gardens at their schools, town halls and libraries.
Jean got Woodstock started in becoming a Pollinator Pathway town through her role with the Woodstock Conservation Commission. She also is a member of the Quiet Corner Garden Club, another group of like-minded people when it comes to the value and importance of pollinators. This past September she helped set up an information booth at Celebrating Agriculture, an annual event held at the Woodstock Fairgrounds in late September. The booth included pollinator information with handouts and a laptop with a loop message about the program. This booth brought greater awareness in Woodstock with several folks now signing on with their pollinator gardens. Jean’s new motto is to “save the planet one yard at a time.”
That same motto has been applied in Willimantic for the last decade as community activists strive to create green spaces, both public and private, that are wildlife-friendly and enhance the quality of life for residents. Jean de Smet, one of those activists, said a pollinator pathway is in the works. I’ll write more about the effort in another column.
Louise has done amazing work in her part of the state getting this program up and running. Hopefully we’ll see more folks planting pollinator gardens and getting their towns involved here in The Last Green Valley. She reminded me the “Pollinator Pathway Program is truly a grassroots effort connecting land and people throughout the state rallying around the single important issue of pollinators.” Louise has a saying about native plants and pollinators “if you plant them, they will come.” Hopefully the same will be said for this important program.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me and so many others as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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