How we can flip the script on pollinator decline

June 21, 2019 Aaron Feggestad

Changing the way we think about ecosystem restoration to combat the decline of pollinators   

 

This is an update of a blog posted in June 2018 – The buzz on pollinators: Why their declining population is bad news for everyone. Stantec views the decline of pollinator populations as a serious economic and environmental threat. So, we want to revive the conversation in light of National Pollinator Week (June 17-23).  

In 2007, the US Senate designated Pollinator Week to call attention to the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. A pollinator is any animal—commonly insects such as bees and butterflies—that help plants make fruits or seeds by moving pollen. This process, termed pollination, is vital to food production and is the reason we find produce in our local supermarkets. From apples and tomatoes to almonds and vanilla, pollinators are to thank. Accordingly, insect pollination is valued at billions of US dollars per year.

Twelve years after its designation, Pollinator Week has grown into an international celebration in recognition of the importance of pollinators to our society and economy. Yet, populations continue to decline. Habitat loss and degradation are two primary contributing factors. But, the good news? Simple acts of conservation can reverse these trends while also strengthening our communities by making them more resilient.

 

Twelve years after its designation, Pollinator Week has grown into an international celebration in recognition of the importance of pollinators to our society and economy.

 

Flowers, flowers, flowers!

When pollinators move pollen from flower to flower, they are rewarded with nectar, a sugary fluid that plants produce to entice pollinators to visit and land on a flower. The presence of many flowers growing together in an area—preferably of different color, flowering periods, and shape—is vital to the successful establishment of pollinator habitat. Flowers are critical, but not the only ingredient. Habitat is defined as the natural environment where an organism lives–food, water, and shelter must also be present. So, in addition to lots of flowers, pollinators also need things like water sources, nesting sites, and shelter from inclement weather to survive and reproduce.  

_q_tweetable:We always strive to show our clients the value of long-term sustainability over short-term gains._q_

Habitat comes in many shapes and sizes depending on your location. Prairies, a type of naturally occurring pollinator habitat that was historically present in the Midwestern US, is now largely absent. Prairies and other pollinator habitat have been widely replaced by farm fields, roads, and cities. On one extreme, traditional mowed and manicured turfgrass lawn provides habitat for just a miniscule number of pollinators and other beneficial insects. Add a small pollinator garden, and that same area has the potential to support hundreds of species. Scale that up to hundreds or even thousands of acres, such as the land along roadways, energy corridors, commercial green spaces, and parks and preserves, and the whole conversation on pollinators can quickly change. Borrowing an iconic line from the 1989 movie classic, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” 

 

Through cross-collaboration, we believe there is a strong potential for many clients to adopt our approach and incorporate native pollinator habitats into the built environment

 

Ecological perspective

So, I just plant some flowers and walk away, right? If only it were so simple! Some pollinators have very specific habitat requirements. Take the iconic Monarch butterfly, for example—the insect marvel that strikes awe in children and adults alike as it travels thousands of miles south to overwinter in central Mexico each year. Upon returning to the US each spring and summer, the new generation of Monarch requires a specific type of plant to reproduce–milkweed. Adult Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and the larvae (or caterpillar) only eat milkweed leaves. No milkweed, no Monarchs!  In addition, milkweed plants must be present in sufficient numbers across the landscape and in the right habitats, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast and southern Canada, to support the Monarch population. 

Many butterflies rely on host plants. Such plants are often native, meaning they were present in an area long before habitat decline. Pollinators and other potential insects evolved with native plants—they shared the same habitat for thousands of years, so they are designed to work well together. Meanwhile, invasive plants—those that invade natural habitats and displace desirable native plants—should be strongly discouraged as they can also wreak havoc on agricultural economies. These factors are critical to consider when restoring pollinator habitat. Getting the right plants in an area, and managing the habitat to keep them there, will save a lot of time and money in the long-run. Pollinators will be the first to declare the success of a well-planned habitat.

 

Leading the way

The pollinator crisis is of high interest to the environmental consulting industry right now. However, some are still not aware of the threat—or if they are, they don’t see the advantages of incorporating pollinator habitats into their designs. That’s where we step in to help facilitate education and awareness prior to eventual implementation.

Stantec’s Environmental Services team demonstrates why the pollinator crisis should matter to our clients. How? By highlighting the critical role pollinators play in everyday life, but also by showing our clients that sound environmental stewardship and setting a positive example can enhance their corporate image and provide a powerful source of company pride.

Through cross-collaboration, we believe there is a strong potential for many clients to adopt our approach and incorporate native pollinator habitats into the built environment. Whether it’s a power, oil and gas, or transportation project, proactive thinking and planning can offer the design, implementation, and maintenance to support pollinators and their habitats.

 

Whether it’s a power, oil and gas, or transportation project, proactive thinking and planning can offer the design, implementation, and maintenance to support pollinators and their habitats.

 

Ahead of the curve

We always strive to show our clients the value of long-term sustainability over short-term gains. Right now, that means integrating components like pollinator habitats into developing projects whenever possible. The decision to embrace a new or innovative design almost always comes down to budget. How much is our client able to spend? How can we maximize that spending to optimize our design now and into the future?

The fact is, our clients may still feel pollinator habitats are non-essential elements to a project. It’s our job to prove value, which can be challenging because the cost can vary from site to site. Plus, the costs of a pollinator habitat are typically compared to traditional turf or landscaping. The pricing may not seem attractive, but not all pollinator projects need to be complex–a little can go a long way.

For example, simply enhancing existing landscaping to attract a certain kind of pollinator is a step in the right direction. In some cases, the costs could be the same, or even less, than traditional approaches. In more expensive instances, where costs are usually associated with maintenance, we help to highlight the worldwide need.

The pollinator crisis is an evolving issue. Our experts are working every day to communicate the importance of pollinators and the implications of designing pollinator habitats into our client’s projects.

For any more information regarding pollinator habitats, contact our Environmental Services team.

About the Author

Aaron Feggestad

Aaron Feggestad is a restoration ecologist in our Madison, Wisconsin, office, where he conducts ecological restoration planning and design, on-the-ground restoration implementation, natural resource assessments and monitoring, and wetland delineations.

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