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Pollinators

Birds are known as indicator species: they tell us if things are alright in the ecosystem. Photo above: A male rose-breasted grosbeak rests in a tulip tree. Photo by Luci Betti-Nash

A new study in the Sept. 20 issue of Science has found that in the United States and Canada bird populations have fallen a staggering 29 percent since 1970.

Such a dramatic drop has scientists concerned that the decline could be a sign of an ecosystem collapse. Habitat loss is considered a prime culprit. 

Huntington resident Coby Klein understands the big picture. He’s an ecology professor at Baruch College and a guide with the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society.

“If the arctic continues to become warmer and drier, it will cause larger and more frequent fires,” he said. “Fires kill birds and destroy nesting habitats and drive down populations of sandpipers, gulls, terns, waterfowl and birds of prey that migrate through or winter on Long Island.”

The best thing people can do, if you really have an interest in protecting birds and the environment, he said, is to vote.

Otherwise, the Audubon Society is committed to transforming communities back into places where birds flourish. Sterile lawns, ornamental species, pesticides and herbicides mean that on a local level, the landscape no longer supports functioning ecosystems.

Klein himself said that he lives on a postage-stamp-sized lot and the only native plant that thrives in his yard is poison ivy. But he notes that the Audubon Society is sponsoring a campaign called Creating Bird-Friendly Communities. The program is designed to educate the public on what they can do to help reverse the damage done and revive disappearing bird populations.

Growing native plants is a key component to re-establishing the ecological functions of cities and towns, according to the society and its experts. And they say the concept is easier on the back and wallet.

To flourish, birds need (a) plenty of food, (b) shelter where they can rest, (c) clean water to drink and bath in and (d) safe places to raise their young. Native plants and the insects that co-evolved around them are vital to a healthy system. The more native plants, the Audubon emphasizes, the more food and shelter. More bugs, caterpillars and seed pods on more public and private land is part of the solution.

The Audubon’s Native Plants Database, which is on its website, suggests plants according to ZIP code. The choices were hand-selected by local experts and include information about the birds and creatures it benefits. Serviceberry, for example, is recommended for Long Island’s North Shore communities. The small, shrublike tree with dense branching produces white flowers in the spring followed by red, purple or black berries. It attracts butterflies and caterpillars, as well as warblers and woodpeckers and about nine other types of birds. The database can be a good first place to explore landscape options.

The Long Island Native Plant Initiative’s website is another good resource. The local nonprofit gathers wild seeds and makes  native plants commercially available. It also grows and sells the native plant species to local nurseries to increase availability. Polly Weigand, the executive director, recommends requesting native plants from your favorite garden center to increase demand. It’s goal is to reach more businesses in the nursery industry. Once people get into the habit of  providing suitable habitats, birds become less vulnerable and are potentially more capable of adapting to climate conditions, according to the Audubon.

Native gardens, experts agree, are also relatively maintenance free and require little to no special irrigation system or fertilizers or toxic chemicals.  So, it saves time and money and is a  healthier option for people in the long run.

This fall consider practicing less drastic and costly yard cleanup. The Audubon recommends leaving the seed heads of perennials in the garden and skipping the raking. Leaf litter, they say, is free fertilizer, and a good place for birds to forage for worms and other critters. If tree limbs fall, they say, consider building a brush pile that will provide birds with shelter from the wind and predators. Branches settle and decompose over the seasons and make room for the next year’s contributions.

Plant asters and woody shrubs like bayberry and winterberry this fall.  The waxy fruit of bayberry provides an important source of energy to migrating birds. Evergreens, too, like cedars, firs and holly, provide shelter and something for birds to eat in winter. In general, milkweed, goldenrod and sunflowers are important plants for the rest of the year.

“When you plant native species in your home landscapes it’s a protective way of ensuring that invasive ornamental species seeds don’t spread and dominate the rest of Long Island’s landscape,” said Weigand.  

Overall, the objective is to lose some lawn, or create pathways through it, and create habitat layers. Tall canopy trees produce nuts and provide nest cavities for shelter. Shrubs and small trees throw fruit for bird food and herbaceous plants supply seeds and a habitat for pollinators. Decaying leaves produce the base of all habitats. It also happens to be where moth pupae live, a favorite food of baby birds.

Start small, the Audubon states, and cluster plants in groupings of five or more of the same species. Pollinators, they say, prefer to feed from masses of the same flower. And remember to include a birdbath or hollowed out rock where rainwater collects, so birds have a supply of fresh water.

In the end, you’ve created a backyard sanctuary and a sure method for healthy, sustainable living. 

The Girl Scouts of Suffolk County and the Little Scientists club joined county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Heritage Trust, the Long Island Native Plant Initiative and members of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension to plant local native species in Anker’s Educational Agriculture Support Initiative pilot garden Tuesday at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

The Girl Scouts, alongside their younger counterparts from the Little Scientists club, got down in the dirt and planted several native plants, including various types of milkweed which attract monarch butterflies and other native pollinators to the area.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, monarch butterflies and other native pollinators to Long Island have decreased in numbers by more than 80 percent in the past two decades. Native bee populations are also on the decline. With this decline in native pollinators, Anker hopes to educate people about the importance of native plants and pollinators in the environment.

But before members of the LINPI and Cornell Cooperative Extension helped the Girl Scouts and Little Scientists plant flowers and plants in the pilot garden, Anker gathered the children and tested their knowledge on the importance of native plants and pollinators.

Michelle Skoblicki created the Little Scientists club four years ago. The program caters to children from pre-K to fifth grade, and its goal, according to Skoblicki, is to provide these kids with a means to expand their knowledge about science through hands-on activities, literature and art.

Skoblicki recently taught the kids about life cycles using butterflies, and hopes to release the butterflies they raised in the pilot garden by the end of the week.

“We were hoping to have them ready for the garden but they were still in their chrysalises,” Skoblicki said.

Members of the Girl Scouts also helped plant native plants in the garden; and Maris Lynch, who is involved in her third event as a Girl Scout, was simply happy to help.

The launch was the first event for Girl Scouts Analynn Bisiani and Lindsey Galligan. Bisiani said she was happy to participate and was having fun.

“I would definitely do this again,” Bisiani said.

Galligan was one of several kids who grasped Anker’s message.

“Plant are … a very important part of our community,” Galligan said. “They help insects which help us — and that’s that.”

Anker was excited for the launch and hopes to continue spreading the word about the importance of pollinators and the native plants they need.

“When your kids, when your grandkids or great grandkids are here at the park, I want them to experience everything that I’m experiencing now,” the county legislator said. “If we don’t do something now, we’ll loose this forever.”

They buzz and flutter and they are disappearing from Long Island’s environment. Pollinators are on the decline on the Island and nationwide.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, native pollinators such as Monarch butterflies have decreased in numbers by more than 80 percent in the past two decades. Native bee populations, among other indigenous pollinator species, are also on the decline, which can put local farms at risk as less pollinators mean less pollination.

But Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) hopes to help Long Island farmers combat the population decline with her new Educational Agriculture Support Initiative, which aims to increase the amount of native plant species on Long Island, starting with the Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

“The history of Heritage Park is [that] we wanted to take care of the rural character and the heritage of the area,” Lori Baldassare, president of Heritage Trust, said about how the park got involved with Anker’s initiative. According to Baldassare, Anker has a long history with the park so “it just seemed like a natural place to do [a] … demonstration garden.”

Honeybees, above, which are native to Europe are efficient pollen collectors and honey producers but they are not effective pollinators because pollen sticks onto their legs so well. They are one of the few bee species that live in a hive. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Honeybees, above, which are native to Europe are efficient pollen collectors and honey producers but they are not effective pollinators because pollen sticks onto their legs so well. They are one of the few bee species that live in a hive. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Although Anker has teamed up with Heritage Trust, Girl Scouts of Suffolk County, Long Island Native Plant Initiative, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County and the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District to help create a pilot native plant species garden at Heritage Park, she said that it will take more than the individuals from these organizations to bring back local pollinator species.

“I need people to participate,” she said. “I need people to understand that this is really important. If we don’t preserve [the environment] nobody else will.”

According to Polly Weigand, executive director of the plant initiative and senior soil district technician for the conservation district, the team is trying to provide the pilot garden with various native plant species, including native grasses, which will attract and sustain pollinators throughout the year. While these plants are neither flowering nor the most visually appealing, Weigand said the grasses provide a place for insects to lay their eggs and shelter during the winter months.

While some invasive or nonnative plants, like butterfly bush, can provide food for native butterflies, it isn’t sufficient for these insects to lay their eggs or seek shelter. Native insects evolve with the native plants in the area. The evolution allows these creatures to use a plant for shelter and sustenance. Although some invasive or nonnative plants can provide food and habitat for these small creatures, this is not always the case.

“Plants have a little chemical warfare that they play with the species that are going to [prey] on them,” Weigand said. “They put out toxins to try to keep the animal from eating the leaves.”

It takes several generations before an insect can successfully utilize the foreign plants for their life cycle.

But according to Robin Simmen, community horticulture specialist for the cooperative extension, and Laura Klahre, beekeeper and owner of Blossom Meadow in Cutchogue, in addition to the lack of suitable plants, the use of pesticides and lack of suitable habitat for Long Island pollinators are some of the many factors contributing to the decline in the native species.

Polly Weigand, left, of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, and county Legislator Sarah Anker, right, discuss native plant species for Anker’s Educational Agriculture Support Initiative pilot garden at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Polly Weigand, left, of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, and county Legislator Sarah Anker, right, discuss native plant species for Anker’s Educational Agriculture Support Initiative pilot garden at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“We used to just think that we would get these free pollination services from nature,” Klahre said. “But in the future that may not be the case because there aren’t enough flowers around [and] we have so many pesticides.”

Pesticides that target unwanted pests, like ticks, are also detrimental to native bees, which live underground.

When the toxins seep into an area in close proximity to native insects, some eventually develop dementia.

Klahre also mentioned the lack of open space as an issue as it jeopardizes the livelihood of the bugs.

While Klahre does not know by how much the native bee population has declined, she said they are struggling to maintain their populations just like their European counterpart, the honeybee. According to Klahre there are about 4,000 different bee species nationwide and 450 different species in New York state alone.

Unlike docile native bees like mining, mason or sweat bees, honeybees are not efficient pollen collectors.

Native bees are among the best pollinators for a variety of plant species. The native bees also yield higher quality and longer lasting fruits like apples or cherries, which can have a thicker outer skin; a thicker skin means that the fruits have a longer shelf life than those pollinated by honeybees.

Although Anker said farms across Long Island are affected by the decline in pollinator species as they are forced to import pollinating bees to the locations, Klahre said she only saw a disruption in growing produce with home gardeners.

Monarch butterflies, above, fly from their wintering grounds in Mexico to Long Island, which serves as their breeding range during the summer. Monarchs born during the summer only live three to five weeks in comparison to overwintering adult Monarchs that can live up to nine months. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Monarch butterflies, above, fly from their wintering grounds in Mexico to Long Island, which serves as their breeding range during the summer. Monarchs born during the summer only live three to five weeks in comparison to overwintering adult Monarchs that can live up to nine months. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Pollinators like bees usually have a route that they go on to collect pollen and nectar before returning to their habitat. If these insects are not accustomed or attracted to a homeowner’s property, it is unlikely that the pollinator will visit the area. This is especially the case for homeowners who have a simple grass lawn.

While some grasses help native insects, a bare lawn does not provide a pollinator with the necessary sources of food in order to survive.

But Anker’s goal is to educate the community about the best way to attract and support these insects using appropriate native plant species like milkweed, among others.

“I’m actually looking to have [pilot gardens] throughout Suffolk County,” Anker said in regards to her initiative.

The plant initiative has selected the types of native plants that will go into Anker’s pilot garden, which could be designed and constructed toward the end of August.

Individuals like Klahre believe there is enough time to heal the environment and help increase native pollinators like bees, but she does acknowledge the reality of having little to no pollinators.

“In China there are some areas that are so polluted that they actually have people that are going from flower to flower in orchards with feathers moving the pollen,” Klahre said. “I just never want us to get to that point.”