Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Pollinators could benefit from the pandemic

My recent piece for Big Sky Journal describes how landscaping with native plants can help our declining insect pollinators.

I started my research by talking with my friend Diane Jones, owner of Draggin' Wing High Desert Nursery in Boise, ID. Jones remembered that 2020 at first looked like a tough year in the plant business. Organizations cancelled their spring sales, where Jones usually sells plants early in the season. 

But, as people spent more time at home, they noticed their yards could use some attention. As they saved time and money on commuting and socializing, people started on yard projects. They went to  Draggin’ Wing for plants, ideas, and advice. “People kept coming and coming,” Jones remembered. 

Looking back over her almost 20 years in business, Jones has seen a steady increase in the use of native plants in landscaping. Concern over the precipitous drop in our pollinators is driving much of the interest in natives, Jones said. Much of the pandemic yard work involved creating pollinator-friendly yards.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are, sadly, our best-known pollinator in peril. Monarchs rely solely on milkweeds for raising their young. As the plants’ roadside and wildland habitats are converted to other uses, and adjacent crops are sprayed with herbicides, milkweeds—and monarchs—are disappearing.

Native milkweeds:  Asclepias tuberosaA. speciosaA. fascicularis (© Draggin' Wing High Desert Nursery)

We have fewer monarch butterflies west of the Rockies and they seem to be declining faster than those in the east. While eastern monarchs overwinter in Mexico, their western siblings head to groves on the southern California coast. Where over a million orange-and-black butterflies covered the trees as recently as 1997, fewer than 30,000 were found three years ago. This past winter, western monarchs numbered fewer than 2,000. Researchers feared the worst. 

However, while we were adapting to working from our living rooms and remembering to unmute on Zoom, monarch butterflies were adapting to living in San Francisco and laying eggs. At least some of the missing monarchs appear to have stopped in the Bay Area to create a pandemic baby boom instead of continuing on to their winter homes. (The predicted human baby boom turned out to be a baby bust.)

David James, at Washington State University, has tagged and tracked western monarch butterflies since 2012. In a recent academic paper, James says that the new stay-home-and-reproduce behavior is likely due to warmer temperatures in northern California and the availability of non-native African milkweeds, which are widely planted in the area. 

This isn’t the first time James has seen monarchs change their migration and breeding habits. Four decades ago, he saw a similar shift among monarchs in Australia, where the insects were introduced. James is hopeful that western monarchs will adapt and thrive, but cautions that we don’t yet understand all the challenges they will face. 

If you didn't finish your pandemic yard work, you can still help pollinators by planting native milkweeds for our iconic monarch butterflies—and the more than 100 other insects that use them. Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery carries the three kinds of milkweed pictured here.

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