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Pollinator Habitat is Falling to the Side of the Road—in a Good Way

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By Mirela NanPublished 2 months ago 3 min read
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If you’re driving along the highway in Florida sometime soon, you may find the roadside dotted with the blooms of thousands of flowers. But they aren’t just eye candy. These flowers are intended to create pollinator habitat corridors.

According to Jaret Daniels, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, we no longer have the luxury of relying only on conservation lands to address biodiversity loss. Climate change, pollution, pesticides and habitat destruction are putting increasing pressure on pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. He says we need to look at nontraditional spaces as well, such as agricultural margins, utility corridors and roadsides. Although roads commonly fragment habitat for wildlife, pollinator programs, present in many states, flip the script and provide opportunities for conservation.

Daniels is the lead of a new $155,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation that will plant 9,000 milkweed plants along Florida highways over the next three years to support monarch breeding habitat. Monarchs depend on diverse ecosystems, but they only lay their eggs on milkweed.

Monarchs are a “gateway bug” to improving habitat, says Daniels. Planting the roadsides for monarchs will also be good for insect pollinators in general. Beyond that, pollinators such as bees are key participants in agriculture, and we depend on them for our food. These roadside plantings aim to connect habitat, rather than fragment it. State Departments of Transportation (DOTs), often managing some of the most land in the state, are uniquely positioned to address this task.

“Even these fairly urbanized areas still harbor a lot of diversity,” says Daniels. “And if you connect those spaces, then it enhances it even more to provide connectivity between populations and movement.”

From beautification to conservation

Planting flowers along roadsides isn’t a new idea. Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification efforts in the 1960s spread beyond cities and to the highways, and many states have been planting flowers on roadways for years.

But some of these beautification efforts have taken up a second purpose—pollinator conservation. North Carolina began its Wildflower Program in 1985, and it now manages 1,500 acres of wildflowers along major North Carolina thoroughfares.

About 15 years ago, says Derek Smith, roadside management engineering supervisor for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), discussion of pollinators entered the picture when a North Carolina State University scientist, Danesha Seth Carley, started studying the effects these plantings were having on pollinators. NCSU research confirmed that these roadside plantings drew in a higher number of bees and greater bee diversity.

The efforts then became intentional. The NCDOT planted gardens for monarchs at highway rest areas, welcome centers and wetland mitigation sites.

Besides milkweed, NCDOT also plants a mix of perennial, annual and native plants. “Monarchs will nectar on all kinds of plants,” says Smith.

The decision to plant perennials and natives means that the NCDOT doesn’t need to go back every year to re-establish the plot. Additionally, it’s worked with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to support farmers who want to grow flowers on their farm margins in support of pollinators.

“Transportation departments are one of the largest landowners in various states,” says Smith. “Why not take advantage of it if we can, and create habitat.”

More than milkweed

The milkweed movement is commonly associated with a way to help the monarch butterfly. In recent years, it’s become a popular way to support the species—since milkweed is the only type of plant on which monarchs will lay their eggs.

However, landscape designer and author Benjamin Vogt cautions against leaning too much on milkweed as the silver bullet for monarch conservation. Adult monarchs need a diversity of plants on which to nectar.

“A more diverse habitat planting fosters a thriving ecosystem, one in which countless other interactions are occurring, which not only benefit monarchs but all sorts of other butterfly and insect and bug species,” wrote Vogt to Modern Farmer in an email. “Gardening for monarchs means gardening for everyone else.”

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Mirela Nan

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