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Save the Bees at Home: Building Pollinator Pathways

Save the Bees at Home: Building Pollinator Pathways

We talk a lot about honey bees here—after all, that’s where this whole thing started. But honey bees aren’t the only pollinators whose populations are in decline. 

Many species of bees, flies, butterflies, and moths are dwindling —or even disappearing entirely across the globe. If you’re thinking habitat loss is a major factor in pollinator population decline, you’re absolutely right. Urban sprawl means less acreage available for pollinators to find food or survive long winters.

Another big problem is isolation. Genetic diversity is one of the keys to survival—not just having many different species, but, more importantly, having genetic variation within a given population. 

Genetic diversity provides a species with the greatest chance of adapting to new threats (like parasites or disease) by increasing the likelihood that at least some members of a group will have a natural defense to those threats and be able to pass it on to their offspring.

So how is isolation a problem for genetic diversity? 

Imagine that a small city has been built in the center of a vast valley where butterflies used to freely live, scavenge, and reproduce. The lack of green space in this city means there is little food or shelter for these butterflies, so rather than crossing the valley the butterflies all stay on their own side of the valley. Now, instead of one large population of butterflies, there are two small populations. And because there is no pathway for the butterflies to reach one another,  there is little or no exchange between the two groups. 

The genetic diversity of each group has been reduced.

butterfly on light purple flowers

What are Pollinator Pathways and how can they help?

First envisioned by Sarah Bergmann, pollinator pathways corridors of pesticide-free land, filled with native plants, that provide safe, beautiful paths between two larger pollinator habitats (such as meadows, parks, or farmland). 

These corridors provide a way for pollinator populations to meet, increasing the diversity of all populations and, over time, helping grow them back to healthy levels. 

Plus, pollinator pathways offer additional sources of food and shelter, both vital and rare in urban areas.

How you can create a pollinator pathway in your community

Step 1: Identify two pollinator habitats you’d like to connect.

This may require a little research, and is a great way to get to know your local community! 

Pollinators require spaces to forage, and spaces to nest. Good foraging spots will have a variety of plants—flowers, shrubs, and trees—offering pollen and nectar at different times throughout the growing season. Nesting sites may include dead trees, well-shaded ground, and tall, grassy areas. 

Wander around your community and take note of places where you see pollinators congregating—a vacant lot or undeveloped meadow behind a local park, a wildlife preserve or state or county park, or even large patches of land abutting private property may be ideal pollinator habitats.

bumblebee on white flowers

Step 2: Research your native pollinators.

The key to a useful pollinator pathway is making sure that each “stop” on your path is within easy flying distance for your native pollinators. This can vary quite widely. Consider that a bumblebee may travel as little as 300 feet for food, whereas some honey bees may travel up to 4 miles away from their hives. 

This would be a great time to talk to a local ecologist or biologist in your area, as they may already know everything you’ll need to know about your local pollinator populations.

Step 3: Research native plants.

Once you have identified your local pollinators, it's time to figure out your local native plants. you can figure out what they like to eat—and where they like to nest, and to rest. 

In general, native plants will be the best options to provide pollinators in your community with optimal nutrition. You aren’t restricted to native plants, but if you want to branch out, be sure to choose non-invasive, drought-friendly species. 

Try to include a variety of plants on your list, including flowers of various shapes as well as shrubs, and plants that flower in the spring, in the summer, and in the fall.

The Pollinator Partnership has a searchable database of pollinators and the plants they love, and there's even a downloadable app. 

Step 4: Get permission or buy-in.

This is probably going to be the toughest part of your project, but now that so many are aware of the dangers of decreasing pollinator populations, some of the hard work has already been done for you.

Before you actually plant anything, you’ll need to know where you are legally able to plant. While we might personally support guerrilla seed-bombing, it’s important to remember that if someone doesn’t know about your pollinator pathway project, they might inadvertently mow down your nice new butterfly oasis! 

Besides, getting support from your community is the best way to make your pollinator pathway successful, permanent, and hopefully, just the first of many.

For this step, you might need to get in touch with your local city or county government. Try contacting your local Parks Department to see if they have existing programs you could collaborate with. There might also be local conservation groups or Scout troops involved in increasing pollinator habitats that you could work with. Research local laws about public land in your area and see if you are able to plant on any publicly owned lands. 

See if you can figure out who owns a specific lot or farm and get in touch to ask them if they’ll grant permission for you to include some of their land in your pollinator pathway. They might even offer to help! Depending on the pollinator habitats you’d like to connect, this could be an amazing neighborhood project. Go ahead and get to know your neighbors! Teach them about pollinator pathways and ask which of them might be willing to create a pollinator garden in their yard.

2 people planting a garden

Step 5: Get planning (and planting).

Once you have a pathway mapped out—and permission for creating pollinator pit stops in the locations you chose—you can plan out what you’d like in each spot. At some spots, all you may need to do is maintenance. If you’ve located a spot that already has pollinator-friendly plants, you might be able to get permission to fence off a portion of it so that it stays unmowed, or to install a sign letting others know that the land is part of a pollinator pathway. 

You can check on spots like this occasionally, if you’ve gotten permission to do so, to remove any invasive plants that may have started to grow.

If you need help paying for native plants, fencing, or signs, start with your community. See if your city, county, or state offers grants for small projects like yours that would help with your expenses. Ask local nurseries or hardware stores if they would be willing to donate plants or other materials. Some neighbors who can’t or don’t want to put pollinator-friendly gardens in their own yards might donate some money to help you purchase plants. 

And don’t discount the power of crowdfunding—post about your project in local Facebook groups and you might find more offers of help and financing than you expect.

When you have gathered all the plants and other materials you need, you can start planting and getting your pollinator pathway going.