Making Minnesota an oasis for pollinators

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership – @mattjdoll

It’s no secret that pollinating species – including bees, butterflies, birds, and beetles – are facing sharp declines across the world. Minnesota is no exception, and as a state with economic sectors that rely on these species, we’re especially sensitive to this crisis. For that reason, making Minnesota a haven where pollinators can rebound has been a priority for the MEP coalition.

The causes of – and solutions to – this crisis are also no secret. The heavy use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids and seeds treated with them, causes enormous harm to pollinators and other species, and reducing their usage via good policies is an important piece of the puzzle. Habitat destruction is another enormous factor. Too much land in Minnesota has been made completely inhospitable to pollinators, both in urban and rural areas, but reversing this trend isn’t a pie-in-the-sky goal. And climate change threatens pollinators just as it does nearly every species in the ecosystem – marking yet another reason for ambitious action to curb and capture emissions.

The Minnesota Legislature took some small steps to protect pollinators in the 2019 session. Bills to ban neonicotinoid pesticides in the state’s Wildlife Management Areas passed in the House and the Senate, but the compromise between the two bills wasn’t included in final legislation. A bill to allow the cities of Duluth, Minneapolis, Rochester and St. Paul to regulate pesticides passed in the House, but did not make it through the Senate.

However, the Legislature did create a new cost-share program, “Lawns to Legumes,” to help homeowners convert their lawns to pollinator-friendly habitat. Once implemented, it will help Minnesota neighborhoods become pollinator sanctuaries.

While statewide and national policy solutions are desperately needed for pollinator revival, individual Minnesotans can help grow a trend of changing the way we use land in our communities to benefit these vital species.

Here are some principles you can use if you have the ability to change your home’s landscape:

  • Trade grass for legumes, flowers and trees. The ubiquity of grass lawns in the United States has taken a major toll on pollinator habitat, not to mention water quality (about 1/3 or residential water is used to irrigate lawns and gardens, and fertilizing grass is a significant contributor to algal blooms and unswimmable lakes in many communities). Replacing grass with pollinator-friendly plants that are more resilient to weather changes and soil conditions can cut costs and make for a beautiful, ecologically positive garden.

    And it doesn’t mean that you have to make an entire yard unusable for ordinary recreation. White clover, for example, can be walked on and mowed similarly to grass, while benefiting the ecosystem. This legume is found in many yards, and it’s both weather-resilient and beneficial to many Minnesota pollinator species. Similar low-growing species include creeping thyme and self-heal.

  • Use diversity to your advantage: Pollinators generally have difficulty thriving in an area if they’re restricted to one type of food source. And different plants produce different levels of nectar and pollen at various stages of the year. Conversely, some species, like Monarch caterpillars, only subsist on one type of plant as a food source. The Minnesota Wildflowers website is a good resource to learn about these various species and how to develop a good mix.
  • Plant natives: Minnesota’s pollinators eat best when they have access to their traditional prairie food sources. The Department of Natural Resources maintains an online encyclopedia that helps determine whether a plant is native to Minnesota or an invasive species. Local farmers markets can be an excellent place to purchase native plants. (Important caveat: make sure that any seeds or plantings in your garden haven’t been treated with pesticides. Not all seeds labeled “pollinator friendly” are the real deal.)
  • Less (work) is more: As a general rule, yards that tend to be more hospitable to wildlife are those where less maintenance is conducted. Mowing, excessive weeding, and especially spraying of herbicides and pesticides are counterproductive. And removing accumulated leaves and debris in the spring shouldn’t be done until after temperatures have been consistently warmer than 60⁰ – these are prime locations for pollinator larvae to develop.

    Fortunately, planting perennials – species that live more than two years – can cut down on garden maintenance and provide food for pollinators in the long-term. Pollinators don’t mind if you take it easy on yardwork – in fact, they love it!

Even if you don’t have a yard for planting, you still have the power to help Minnesota’s pollinators. You can:

  • Volunteer for habitat restoration: MEP member organizations and a host of other community groups often work to clear out invasive plants and restore native species around the state. Training and tools are usually provided. (Friends of the Mississippi River is one such major group in the metro area.)
  • Support sustainable family farms: Many farms in Minnesota use pollinator-friendly practices like avoiding or limiting pesticide use, and often sell their products at farmers markets throughout the state – stop by to support them and enjoy the fruits of their work.

And we want all Minnesotans to take one critical action: Talk to your lawmakers. We need every Minnesota policymaker at the local, state, and federal levels to understand how important it is to restore our pollinators. We have plans that can make Minnesota a haven of restoration for these keystone species. Let’s make them a reality.

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