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Pollinator Prairies and Highways: Feeding the Bees!

Pollinators

Pollinator habitats are necessary for our food sources.

“Pollinators, especially bees, are responsible for producing 1/3 of the food we eat.”

By Linn Smith
August 6, 2018—-In May 2018, Interstate 76, which stretches through the high plains farmland east of Denver, Colorado for about 185 miles, was designated a Pollinator Highway. The Pollinator Highway Project will not only be planted with food for pollinator insects, but also maintain the health of pollinator plants already growing along the highway.

I have traveled this stretch of highway many times and have always wondered at the vastness of the landscape in this sparsely populated part of Colorado. With almost 9000 miles of highway corridors in the state, I-76 is the perfect test area for the Pollinator Program. The program was initiated by Denver’s Butterfly Pavilion because it is a highway that is not only frequented by migrating butterflies, but also has enough space to eventually create a positive change in our environment by providing food for all pollinating insects.

Pollinator insects

Maintaining the health of our pollinator insects.

Definition of a Pollinator

What is a pollinator? According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, “A pollinator is any organism that helps with the cross-pollination of plants. They are vital to the survival of most of the world’s ecosystems, with an estimated 70-87% of flowering plants relying on pollinators. Many of these plants are food crops that humans rely upon and most of the others are key members of natural ecosystems. Bottomline: Pollinators are extremely important!”

Pollinators

Pollinator Prairies and highways

Colorado Pollinator Highway

For CDOT, Colorado Dept. of Transportation, this is a great opportunity to begin positive environmental changes using the space along its highways, replenishing and creating habitats for pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths, flies, bats, and hummingbirds. This will affect the future food supply of humans, as it’s said that 1 out of 3 bites of food we eat depends on pollinators. CDOT has stated that the pollinator plants along the highway will not affect travel, as the insects will stay in their habitat if it is well maintained.

Colorado will begin this project by planting an 8 mile stretch along I-76 near Julesburg, just over the state line from Nebraska. This test site will allow CDOT to gather data for plans on maintenance and longevity of future pollinator highways in the state. Besides creating habitats for pollinators, the pollinator highways will reduce maintenance in Colorado by reduced mowing. It is a win-win plan for the future.

If the dilemma of pollinator insect die-off is not addressed now, the future of the food we eat and the low prices we pay are in jeopardy. The decline of pollinators is due primarily to land use changes, pesticide use, invasive species, and climate change which can cause insect diseases and loss of habitat. According to CDOT, 30% of the honeybee population dies off yearly (with only a slight increase after die-off each year.) At this rate, the bee population is not sustainable in the long run.

Insect Pollination

Identify Plant Forage for pollinators

Protecting the Pollinator Habitat

The Colorado Department of Transportation will also be working to protect the pollinator habitat as a long-term solution for survival of pollinator insects. CDOT states, “Managing noxious weeds will also be more specialized along the corridor. In fact, we will have a roadside manager for the corridor, who will also oversee the statewide vegetation management program. The pollinator program will promote genetically appropriate plants that support self-sustaining dynamic ecosystems, which are resistant to invasion by non-native or invasive species.”

A variety of plants will be planted that will blossom at different times in the spring, summer and fall, creating food until the insects lie dormant (slow down) for the winter.

Pollinator Prairie

My friend’s well maintained prairie in the Midwest.

Pollinator Prairies

In the Midwest farmers are taking advantage of the CP-42 Pollinator Enhancement (PDF) program which helps and supports farmers that place part of their farmland in pollinator prairie. So far hundreds of thousands of acres have been planted in the CP-42 program.

A friend of mine has planted about 50 acres in pollinator prairie. He maintains it by going through on a regular basis and digging up invasive plants, such as small elm saplings. His land is near the river where the bottom part of the prairie floods several times a year, which hasn’t affected the pollinator plants so far, as they are not underwater for any length of time. He states, ““Once floodplain land is taken out of crop production and returned to natural prairie (pollinator Prairie), it acts as a very good filter in not only cleaning up dirty water ways, but preventing further flooding inland. Our rivers are dirty and prairie grass can act as a filter by allowing the water to run through the grasses.”

pollinator prairie

My friend’s well maintained pollinator prairie grass

Pollinators, especially bees, are responsible for producing 1/3 of the food we eat. What are the foods that need or benefit from pollination? Here are just a few: alfalfa (which can feed our meat and milk sources!), apples, berries, bananas, tomatoes, chocolate (Cocoa Bean trees) and coconut.

Learn how you can help to increase pollinator insects and food sources at: http://www.peopleandpollinators.org. You can also sign up to do volunteer work!”

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Pollinator insects and habitat

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