Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Emily Spiegelman: What a Meadow Means

Don’t touch that weed! Learning to recognize pollinator-friendly native plants can be a critical step in supporting struggling bees and butterflies.

“Meadows are ancient,” says the man at the center of our group, “and our connection to meadows is ancient. Think about the root of the word: mead. Our honey, our sustenance, has always come from the meadow, from the flowers and the bees.”

Six of us stand in the center of a strip of floodplain farmland — a region known as “the Great Meadow” — in Hadley, Massachusetts. Michael and Cathy Katz live on this farm they call That’s-a-Plenty, a narrow plot just wide enough to accommodate their Tiny House, a solar panel, and a picnic table, and long enough to reach all the way to the Connecticut River. Here, they farm sustainably, growing fruit in a small orchard and tomatoes in open greenhouses. In 2011, they established the first pollinator habitat in western Massachusetts funded by grants from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Three years later, they have successfully converted fifty percent of their land into native pollinator habitat.
Virginia mountainmint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), a pollinator-friendly plant
While the plight of the honey bee has been widely covered in the news, the struggle of native pollinators, such as bumble bees, has been less visible. But these creatures are equally critical to our food system, and they’re also facing terrible challenges. It’s for that reason we are here, standing in a circle around pollinator habitat educator Tom Sullivan.
Flies, like this drone fly, can be pollinators, too.

This bumblebee was lethargic and shook in Tom’s hand, perhaps due to pesticide exposure.
Tom is an eager teacher, leading multiple workshops on creating pollinator-friendly habitats in our own gardens and yards through Pollinators Welcome. We devote a good chunk of our morning learning to identify not different species of bees, but native plants. This basic plant awareness, says Tom, is key to successful habitat-building. “When you know the plants, you start to notice which pollinators visit them. That kind of familiarity creates connection and with it more potential for protection.”
Tom introduces the group to a favorite resource: The Xerces Society’s Attracting Native Pollinators
Protection, it turns out, can mean taking action, or in some cases, not acting at all. Those long native grasses we cut back in spring, after they’ve dried up and bowed under the weight of winter snows? It’s better for bumble bees if we leave them untouched. “The lives of the mouse and the bumble bee are intertwined,” says Tom. “Mice make their homes under those bent grasses, and bumble bees use old mouse holes as nests. If we can let go of that need to make every corner of our yard look neat and tidy, we help protect the seventeen species of bumble bee that potentially live in Massachusetts.” The trick is to plant with enough diversity to attract different species of pollinator throughout the year and without letting one or two varieties of aggressive plant overwhelm. This is the work that calls Tom, Michael, and Cathy together in their meadow restoration and management efforts.
Cathy gave out packets of native milkweed seed for our gardens, with hope for future monarchs.
Tom also brings to his work a clear design aesthetic. “I’m always looking at a plant for its visual effect as well as how well it supports bees and other insects,” he says, studying a thick patch of Joe-Pye weed that towers over us. “The red stems of Joe-Pye and its height make it beautiful backdrop for other plants. And just look,” he urges us to peer into the pink blossoms, “how many different bees do you see in here at once?”
A pithy stem nest built for Ceratina, or small carpenter bees
This is one of the most striking qualities of That’s-a-Plenty Farm: in the apparent calm of the meadow, everything is buzzing with life. We can hear the drone emanating from the goldenrod, Joe-Pye, sunflowers, sneezeweed, and Queen Anne’s Lace. We see the flowers bob and sway with the rapid-fire arrival and departure of honey bees, flies, butterflies, and pollen-heavy bumble bees. Michael compares this aspect of life in the meadow to looking into a tidal pool: “When you first look at it, you see nothing but sea and rocks. And then, suddenly, it’s as if someone flipped a switch, and you become aware of thousands of organisms teeming under the surface.”
Seed balls drying in the sun
In the early afternoon, Tom stirs a batch of water, potter’s clay, and native northeastern seed mix from Ernst Conservation Seeds. We gather around the table, rolling the mix into seed balls, which, once dried, can be deposited on a growing site. Embedded in clay, the seeds are protected from animals, which gives them time to germinate and eventually take root. We plant trays of the same seed mix to take home. By the second week of October, the seedlings should be ready for planting in our own pollinator-friendly yards and gardens.
Preparing trays for seeding
Want to make your own yard a welcoming space for native pollinators? Here are some of the resources for information and seeds that Tom shared with us during Saturday’s workshop.

Workshops and additional information:
The Xerces Society
Pollinators Welcome: includes Tom’s Top Ten Tips for Pollinator Proliferation

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