Help monarch butterflies, learn about local pollinators

Helping monarch butterflies: Five key points about local pollinators

By Rachel Crowell | The Oregonian/OregonLive
on July 29, 2015 at 10:00 AM, updated July 29, 2015 at 10:56 AM

In early June, a group of people, including schoolchildren, gathered at Salish Ponds Wetland Park in Fairview. Their mission? To save pollinators by increasing the safe habitat available to them. Their method? Planting milkweed, lavender and wildflowers to create a Monarch Waystation.

For more background and perspective on the role individuals can play in saving pollinators, we talked to Gail Langellotto, an associate professor of horticulture at Oregon State University.

Here are some of the highlights:

1.We know surprisingly little about Pacific Northwestern native pollinators.

According to Langellotto, scientists have “surprisingly very little” data available about Western Monarch migrations. The majority of monarch watches have focused on butterflies in the Midwest and along the East Coast, she said.

Before coming to Oregon and working at OSU, Langellotto lived in New York City and conducted research about monarchs there. When she moved to Oregon, she was “stunned that we know so little” about the plight of Western Monarchs, she said.

Want to know more about losses of bumble bees in Oregon? Good luck finding that information.

2. A few flowers won’t save local pollinators, but individual gardeners can still help.

Langellotto said that when she and other researchers investigated pollinator health in New York City, their models predicted that it would take “200–250 herbaceous flowering plants to increase butterfly, bee or predatory wasp richness by just one species.”

“This is why I think that one gardener, planting a few flowers, probably won’t have a significant impact on pollinators,” she said. “But many gardeners, planting a garden of flowering plants across a block or a community, are likely to make a real and positive difference to pollinators.”

3. The problems pollinators face are complicated.

Langellotto said that across the United States, pollinators face habitat losses as natural areas are being developed into suburbs and cities. The loss of actual habitat lands — coupled with the fact that as habitat loss occurs, pollinators have to fly longer distances to reach tracts of remaining habitat – challenge pollinator survival, she said.

Losing “the monarch butterfly would be really tragic…monarchs are such a charismatic species,” Langellotto said.

Herbicides and pesticides are a double-whammy for pollinators. Herbicides kill plants that pollinators rely on, while pesticides kill pollinators themselves, she said. People can help pollinators by reducing or eliminating their use of herbicides and pesticides.

4. Why should we care about losing monarchs?

“Just the loss of the monarch butterfly would be really tragic because monarchs are such a charismatic species,” Langellotto said.

She thinks that monarchs are the only butterflies that can pollinate milkweed. Milkweed is “pretty toxic,” she said.

Caterpillars are one of the few animals that can safely ingest milkweed without becoming poisoned, and can “get around the latex” that milkweed plants produce.

The latex produced by milkweed seals shut the mouths of many insects, leaving them unable to eat, Langellotto said.

5. What can people do to help?

“Just by tending a garden, you can do a lot of good,” Langellotto said.

She recommends that gardeners:

  • Reduce or eliminate herbicides and pesticides
  • Grow more tolerant of flowering weeds. If people allow some of these weeds to grow in their yards or gardens, then they are likely to see an increase in the diversity of pollinators on their property, she said.
  • Become aware of – and support – pollinators’ nesting habits. Many bees nest in the ground. They need an area of bare soil to dig in, so gardeners can help by tolerating the occasional bare spot. Some bees nest in twigs and can use brush piles. Buying or building a bee house also helps. You can help butterflies, which nest on or under soil, by reducing or avoiding heavy raking and soil disturbance.

— Rachel Crowell

rcrowell@oregonian.com

503-221-8011; @writesRCrowell

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