This is a story about the birds and the bees. And butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, bats, and some other mammals too. To be clear, we’re talking about pollinators. The insects and creatures responsible for aiding the reproduction of 35 percent of the world’s food crops and 75 percent of all flowering plants. However, several these critical species are struggling to survive in the modern world due to habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants. Pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) and the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) are federally endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is conducting a species status assessment on the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to determine whether it should also be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Woodard & Curran’s Project Scientist Raina Singleton and her team of ecologists are trying to curb this trend. As a Certified Ecological Restoration Professional (CERP), Raina is the lead ecologist working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to design and install habitats for multiple pollinator species on a variety of working agricultural lands in Georgia. The NRCS, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency, defines pollinator habitat as areas of permanent herbaceous vegetation located in agriculture landscape, such as areas along the edge, middle, or odd corners of fields.
Healthy Pollinators for a Healthy Ecosystem
The 2008 Farm Bill made pollinators and their habitat a priority. The 2014 Farm Bill revision added targeted support to create honeybee habitats. Over the course of a three-year contract, Woodard & Curran will design and implement several different demonstration sites and develop technical guidance and pollinator habitat training for NRCS staff. The demonstration sites represent various geographies in rural and urban settings, forms of agriculture, and conservation practices designed to support native pollinators. Among native bees alone, there’s an estimated 3,500 species who help boost crop yields.
Pollinators are a relatively new concern for the NRCS. Raina says, “NRCS employees do not have the tools available. We are developing technical specifications, such as seed mix composition, seeding rates, application methods, equipment, site treatment, and maintenance of demonstration sites, so they can then train their internal staff to work with farmers in the field.”
One demonstration site is in metro Atlanta at the Gwinnett Technical College where pollinator-friendly borders are being developed around an organic urban vegetable garden. Here, all aspects of plantings and management must be organic, which is a trending request from clients in urban areas, according to NRCS. Pollinator plantings along a previously disturbed slope and rain garden swale are pulling double duty by also controlling erosion and naturally increasing stormwater infiltration. At another site, situated on a rural farm in Bristol, Georgia, specific plants were selected to attract pollinators to the farm with hopes to enhance blueberry production.
“We have to ensure what we plant is not competing with or blooming at the same time the blueberries are,” says Raina. “We also need durable plants that can tolerate the impact of the blueberry harvesting equipment.” Furthermore, we are coordinating with local nurseries to source native plant material that the land and regional climate can support. The best mix of plant species provides food and shelter for pollinators from spring through fall, as well as safe habitat during winter. An estimated half-acre of contiguous pollinator habitat is required to provide pollinators with enough space to nest, forage, and provide safety from human agricultural activity like tilling and mowing.
“Pollinators help sustain our ecosystems and our natural resources as a critical factor to help plants reproduce,” says Environment and Remediation Business Unit Leader Duff Collins. “Expanding pollinator habitat is an important piece of NRCS’s overall conservation goals of conserving habitat, protecting soils, and improving water quality. Our in-house expertise allows us to support these goals in a hands-on way by working directly with the NRCS staff and local agricultural communities to support this multi-year project.”