Pollinator Conservation Program Digest – October 2018

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 farmers, gardeners, land managers, agency staff, and others to create habitat for bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects—and hundreds of thousands of acres of flower-rich habitat have been planted. We also offer Bee Better Certification for farmers and food companies who are committed to supporting pollinator conservation in agricultural lands.

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 by our team of restoration ecologists, entomologists, plant ecologists, and researchers. Therefore, we have compiled select pollinator conservation program updates into this monthly digest. October’s featured staff hail from Oklahoma, California, and Nebraska, and have been providing workshops for the public, planning pollinator habitat for arid agricultural areas, and assessing the success of pollinator plantings.

Taking the Xerces Society mission to a new frontier: The Rio Grande Valley of Southern Texas

Ray Moranz, Grazing Lands Pollinator Ecologist

In 2015, the Xerces Society received a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program  (SARE) to deliver a day-long course titled “Farming with Beneficial Insects for Pest Control” in each of the lower 48 states. This year, it was my turn to deliver this course in Oklahoma and Texas.

In late September, soon after successful completion of the beneficial insects training at the Botanic Garden Education Center at Oklahoma State University, I flew down to the Rio Grande Valley for the first time. Given that I’m a butterfly ecologist by training, getting to host the course at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, TX was a dream come true. This nature preserve, operated by the North American Butterfly Association, protects native ecosystems along the Rio Grande – including a plethora of native plant and butterfly species – and offers interpretive exhibits and classes for the public at its visitor center and butterfly gardens.

Russell Castro, State Biologist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas and I co-taught the beneficial insect training at the National Butterfly Center. During the first portion of the day, we defined the major terms, particularly conservation biocontrol. This is defined as conserving beneficial invertebrates (predators and parasitoids) that already exist in a landscape by providing them their needed habitat. We went on to describe the major groups of common beneficial invertebrates, and discussed farm practices that can enhance their populations.

Farming with Beneficial Insects for Pest Control course participants

Farming with Beneficial Insects for Pest Control course participants during the field session. One group found ladybird beetles that were helping to reduce aphid populations on a native milkweed vine. (Photo: Xerces Society / Ray Moranz)

This was followed by time in the field to look at beneficial insects in action. We did most of our entomological searching in the shade, as it was sunny and 97 degrees. The group that I led in the field found ladybird beetles that were helping to reduce aphid populations on a native milkweed vine. Upon returning from the field, I presented slides on designing and restoring habitat, and then Russell Castro delivered a presentation on NRCS programs that can provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers for conservation of beneficial insects on their land.

Although the reason I went to Mission was to teach, I also learned a lot about the ecology of the valley from the attendees. The most distressing thing they taught me is that much of the area is covered with various Old World bluestems (Bothriochloa spp.), exotic grasses that were brought in as a forage grass. These grasses outcompete most native forbs, resulting in grasslands that are lacking in floral resources for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Course attendees told me that this plant is impossible to eliminate, even with herbicide. I’m hoping that there will be more research on the control of this plant, to foster successful restoration of the fascinating and diverse native grasslands and shrublands of the region—which will in turn help to restore native invertebrate communities.

Funastrum cynanchoides

Funastrum cynanchoides, a milkweed variety native to southern Texas that is a host plant for monarchs. As Xerces Grazing Lands Pollinator Ecologist Ray Moranz said, “I’m a botanist as well as a pollinator ecologist, and have some knowledge of the north Texas flora, but the flora of south Texas was so different… This milkweed vine was in full bloom, and I think its flowers are exquisite.” (Photo: Xerces Society / Ray Moranz)

Creating Pollinator Habitat in the Desert

Cameron Newell, Bee Better Certified Program Coordinator and Pollinator Conservation Specialist, California

Due to Xerces’ ever-growing impact on the food industry, we are increasingly receiving opportunities to work in new farming regions. A prime example of this is an upcoming winter project that involves planting three flowering shrubby hedgerows in some of the country’s most habitat-challenged agricultural environments. Once the weather cools, I will be traveling into the desert to help a large vegetable grower plant native flowering hedgerows at three locations across the Imperial and San Joaquin valleys. These hedgerows will not only serve as a refuge and a reservoir for pollinators and other beneficial insects in an otherwise habitat-deficient environment, but also will provide an example of what can be accomplished when food companies and farmers work together throughout the region.

The stakes are high on projects like this. In this particular case, the grower manages tens of thousands of acres across four states. If we get things right, and if their management likes what they see, there is huge potential for these practices to be adopted on a larger scale. The other major benefit of a project of this nature is its capacity to demonstrate value and aesthetic appeal to the local grower community. When farmers are looking for ideas, they look over their back fence first. Hopefully our work in these areas will inspire other farmers to create their own pollinator refuges—in a region where such measures are desperately needed.

Almond Farm

Aerial view of a future Bee Better almond farm near Arvin, California. The undulating strip in the middle is a long span of pollinator habitat. (Photo: Peter Albright / Woolf Farming)

From the Field: CRP CP-42 Monitoring Project

RaeAnn Powers, Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner, Nebraska

I have been visiting pollinator plantings in three regions of Nebraska in order to evaluate the success of plantings done under a pollinator-specific habitat enhancement program (CRP CP-42) by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and to provide future guidance on implementing this type of planting. I visited about 25 sites in the northeast, south central and southeast regions, where there were high numbers of pollinator plantings in the last 5 years.

Each pollinator planting I have visited was formerly a row crop field, and these sites are now in their third season of growth as pollinator habitat. We targeted early season (late spring to early summer) and late season (late summer to early fall) as two time periods that are challenging to establish a diversity of flowering plants. Therefore, I’m surveying each field in each of those periods to see if, and how, our plantings provide good sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators. In each field, I look at the plant composition and flower cover of 20 plots. I also observe the type and number of insects in the area and do a timed observation of flower-visiting insects. I am hoping to complete my second round of monitoring if it ever stops raining here!

Wasp on butterfly milkweed

A wasp visiting butterfly milkweed (Aclepias tuberosa) in a pollinator CRP planting. (Photo: Xerces Society / RaeAnn Powers)

Read more about Xerces’ Pollinator Conservation Program.

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