Select monthly 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 certifications: Bee Better Certification for farmers and food companies who are committed to supporting pollinator conservation in agricultural lands, and Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA certifications for cities and colleges dedicated to making the world 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 by our team of restoration ecologists, entomologists, plant ecologists, and researchers. Therefore, we have compiled select pollinator conservation program updates into monthly digests. January’s featured staff have been working on establishing pollinator habitat in California’s Central Valley and helping farmers both navigate the ins and outs of the Endangered Species Act and provide restored habitat for native bees in Maine.
A Hedgerow Grows and Expands in the Central Valley
Kitty Bolte, Pollinator Habitat Specialist
Fall is planting time for restoration projects in California, and it was a fun season of seeing projects come to fruition. One of my favorites is along a slough in Colusa County, CA, in the heart of the Central Valley. Like many others in the valley, the slough in question was leveled over to expand farming areas over the past 50 years. The few areas that are left lack the diversity they likely once had, and are now dominated by just a handful of plant species, many of which are exotic.
Through Xerces’ work with General Mills and Olam, a tomato processing company, I met two tomato-farming brothers who remembered the slough from their childhood. They were excited about the prospect of planting hedgerows as a way of restoring some of the ecosystem functionality that had been lost with the expansion of agriculture. Last year, we planted out our first section of hedgerow: 400 feet long and three rows deep, running west from the northern edge of the slough.
For a hedgerow, it was an extremely diverse planting, incorporating over 30 different plant species. Over the season, it has been a pleasure to watch the hedgerow grow and thrive—so far, we have had 90 percent survivorship of the plants. Not only that, in our first season, the planting teemed with native bees, butterflies, and other insects: we saw syrphid flies, bumblebees, sweat bees, sulphur butterflies, and – though I never saw the bees themselves – evidence of leafcutter bees in the form of characteristic, perfectly round holes in the leaves of western redbud. Compared to the weedy vegetation that originally characterized this field margin, the hedgerow is a major improvement.
This fall, we took the planting a step further, expanding it another 2400 feet running south from the other end of the slough. We included many of the same plants from the original planting in the extension, as well as substantially increasing the amount of milkweed. The latter is part of Xerces’ broader efforts to support the critically imperiled western Monarch. Since finishing up the planting season here in the valley, we’ve been fortunate to finally receive some precipitation, (hopefully) setting us for a successful year two planting as well!
Xerces Society Helps Farmers Prioritize Pollinators and Navigate the Endangered Species Act in Maine
Eric Venturini, Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner
Each year, wild blueberry farmers from across Maine and the Canadian Maritimes gather for the annual Blueberry Hill Farm Field Day in Jonesboro, ME—at the heart of the region known locally as just “Downeast.” The farmers come to learn of the latest research and news pertinent to their livelihoods. At this year’s event, I gave a talk on new research on enhancing populations of native bees for improved crop pollination. The audience was comprised of around 100 farmers who, for years, brought anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 honey bee hives to Maine to pollinate their spring-blooming crop.
With fewer and fewer good “spring pollination days” (more on this here), plummeting berry prices (more on this here), and the recent Endangered Species Act listing of the rusty-patched bumble bee that was once common in their fields, wild blueberry growers were not feeling optimistic. In fact, declining prices meant that many farmers could no longer justify the cost of honey bee pollination and had rented less than half the number of hives they needed for pollination.
The interest in pollinator conservation at the event was tangible, yet many growers were hesitant to commit to improving pollinator habitat. Ironically, their reticence stemmed from a fear of success—what if pollinator habitat plantings were so successful that the rusty-patched bumble bee, which hasn’t been seen in New England in almost 10 years, took up residence on their farm? Some growers were concerned about the possible regulatory implications that playing host to an endangered species could have on their farm and, as a result of this fear, had become less likely to engage in pollinator conservation efforts. The Xerces Society strives to conserve the rusty patched bumble bee, and part of the solution includes restoring habitat on farms for this species.
“The Xerces Society led efforts to obtain Endangered Species Act Protection for the rusty patched bumble bee, which was listed as endangered in 2017. This bumble bee has declined by over 97% and as has been lost from much of the Northeastern US. It has not been seen in Maine since 2009. The Endangered Species Act is an important safety net for species on the brink of extinction and a vital tool in our conservation toolbox to protect at-risk species and their habitat. Our goal is to work with landowners to promote conservation in all landscapes.”
– Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society Executive Director
Following the Blueberry Hill Farm Field Day, Xerces, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) set out to find ways to carry forward the momentum that had been building in the blueberry industry around pollinator conservation. In order to do so, growers needed peace of mind that, should they invest their time and resources in restoring habitat on their farm for pollinators, and should the rusty patched bumble bee take up residence in this habitat, they would not be penalized. Specifically, growers needed assurances that they would not be limited in what they could do on their restored property if they provided habitat for an endangered bumble bee.
Through a collaboration with the USFWS at the state, regional, and national level; NRCS leadership across New England, and a diverse suite of partners (NGOs, government agencies, farmers, and researchers), Xerces, the USFWS, and the NRCS created a framework to overcome the barrier. Using the Working Lands for Wildlife program, they framed an effort that will prioritize USDA-NRCS funded pollinator conservation efforts across New England, and simultaneously provide producers who participate with some level of surety that creating pollinator habitat would not have repercussions on their farm management, even if listed species were to start using – indeed benefiting – from that habitat. If this proposed framework is accepted, the NRCS in every New England state will participate, committing to establishing, maintaining, or protecting habitat. This program will leverage funds for researchers to study the effects of the WLFW conservation efforts, and generate research-based feedback that improves the efficiency of ongoing WLFW pollinator conservation efforts in the region and beyond.