Select updates from our team of restoration ecologists, entomologists, plant ecologists, and researchers.
The Xerces Society manages the largest pollinator conservation program in the world. We work with people from all walks of life to create habitat for bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects—and hundreds of thousands of acres of flower-rich habitat have been planted. We also offer certifications: Bee Better Certified for farmers and food companies who are committed to supporting pollinator conservation in agricultural lands, and Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA for cities and colleges dedicated to making their community safer for pollinators.
With staff based in more than a dozen states, and offering a diverse array of expertise, it can be challenging to summarize the impactful work being done. We compile updates from pollinator team members into regular digests. This edition focuses on work being done by some of our farming partners: Stephanie Frischie reports on habitat projects done by farmers growing crops for Cheerios and Cameron Newell describes ways in which his work has changed due to the coronavirus.
General Mills and the Cheerios–Xerces Pollinator Habitat Program
Stephanie Frischie, Agronomist, Native Plant Materials Specialist (Indiana)
Our partnership with General Mills and the Cheerios–Xerces Pollinator Habitat Program continues to expand in 2020. In early June, farmers planted eight new pollinator habitat areas in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. These habitat areas are on farms with a variety of crops—oats, flax, soybeans, cereal grains—as well as pasture and cattle. The main goals of the program are to:
- Conserve wild bees and butterflies
- Boost pollination and yield of crops such as canola, dry edible beans, buckwheat, sunflower, alfalfa seed, and soybeans
- Improve soil health
- Enhance pastures with forage legumes and/or native wildflowers
- Restore weedy, degraded lands to flowering habitat
- Attract beneficial organisms to suppress pests
Prairie crocus (Pulsatilla nuttalliana), also known as pasqueflower is native to the northern Midwest, northern Great Plains, and parts of the Rocky Mountains. It is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in spring, a critical source of pollen for pollinators as the come out of their overwintering period. Prairie crocus seeds have long silky “tails” that aid in seed dispersal and are one of the many native species included in the seed mixes of the Cheerios–Xerces Pollinator Habitat Program. (Photo: David Hieb.)
Because of the coronavirus, we’ve made a few adaptations to the seed mixes (or blends, the term used in Canada) and travel to continue our work this year, both for the health of our partners and for Xerces staff.
In the program, farmers can opt for one of three main types of seed mixes: a domesticated forage species mix that we refer to as the “tame blend”; a mix of native wildflowers and grasses; or a hybrid of the two, with some tame and some native species. This year we designed the tame blend as a single mix of twelve species that would provide resources for pollinators under a range of farm conditions, instead of a custom blend for each project. This avoided the need for repeated close contact and reduced the risk of coronavirus spread between workers at Northstar Seed, which prepares the seed mixes. The native seed blend is sourced from Skinner Native Seeds, a family business which is able to safely continue to make custom mixes. These mixes include up to 53 wildflower and grass species to provide pollen and nectar throughout the growing season as well as year-round habitat for nesting and overwintering of pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Given the travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, the work is coordinated remotely, and in-person meetings have been replaced with additional phone calls and emails to connect with growers and partners. We’re also using other channels: the Cheerios–Xerces program was featured in a pollinator episode of the “Grain on the Brain” podcast and I was a presenter on a SaskOrganics webinar entitled “Nurturing Nature: Fostering Biodiversity on Farms.” In areas where small gatherings are allowed, the conservation districts in Canada will host a pollinator coffee hour: local growers will gather in the watershed office and I will join them by video—with my own cup of coffee. We’ll talk about managing their habitat for pollinators and addressing any of the challenges they may have, such as weeds. It isn’t the same as meeting farmers on their land, but I’m interested in trying it as another method of sharing knowledge and experiences. Thanks to our many partners and farmers, in 2020 we have eight projects already in the ground and will be adding more in the fall towards this year’s goal of over 800 acres of pollinator habitat through the program.
Habitat Planning in a Time of Restricted Travel
Cameron Newell, Bee Better Certified Program Coordinator (California)
Several months back, the Zirkle Fruit company, a partner in central Washington state, reached out with a proposal to seed nearly 9 acres of cover crop and plant 4.6 acres of native pollinator-attractive shrubs and forbs on their farmland near Mattawa. At the time there was no doubt in my mind that we could get the work done, as I regularly coordinated projects in other states from my base in southern California. How that initial feeling of confidence has changed as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded! From three states away, a project to plant nearly 14 acres of habitat started to look very daunting. To add to the complexity, the grower also wanted to get Bee Better Certified directly after the habitat had been planted.
Habitat planting at the Zirkle Fruit company’s Mattawa ranch. (Photo: Zirkle Fruit Company.)
We have been working with this grower at other locations for several years now and together we have installed many acres of habitat. This strong relationship, and some great seed companies and native plant nurseries in the region, is what gave me the confidence to move forward on this project under the prevailing conditions. We also need to be adaptable with the current uncertainty in the world and this long-distance habitat project model is one that may be a reality for a while. This seemed like an ideal way to trial the process and continue to do some good work installing beautiful pollinator habitat in the inland Northwest.
Working in the western states gives us as pollinator habitat ecologists a wonderful palate of plants to work with. When designing this habitat diversity was always the focus: plants that flower across the season, provide nesting resources, and support declining butterfly species, such as the monarch, were high on the list. The project in Mattawa uses a total of twenty-four native species—including milkweed, blanketflower, goldenrod, penstemon, buckwheat, and golden current—planted across three permanent habitat sites, and a cover crop mix of two native and two nonnative species on a fallow orchard block. The large diversity of flower shapes and sizes will not only benefit the diversity of native bees in the region, but also the diversity of other beneficial insects that this organic grower heavily relies on for pest control in their orchards. I really look forward to the time when travel is again possible and I can visit the sites to see these plantings in bloom and abuzz with bees!
Apple orchard row at Zirkle’s Othello ranch. (Photo: Xerces Society / Cameron Newell.)
Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program.