Honeybees know when they’ve found a good thing.
Researchers learned back in the 1920s that when bees find a good supply nectar, they perform a special kind of dance that shows their fellow bees where to go.
This summer, there must be a lot of dancing bees around the Teller Wildlife Refuge’s brand-new 10-acre pollinator plot.
On a recent morning, the place was already buzzing as thousands of bees converged on the blooms of lacy phacelia, annual sunflower, prairie Ccneflower and small burnet that were part of the 14 species of grasses and flowering plants seeded with a no-till drill in early spring.
The planting was made possible with financial support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s program authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill that’s aimed at increasing habitat for honeybees and other pollinators.
Honeybees and other wild bees have been declining over the last few decades. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, extinction rates for pollinators have been increasing with about 40% of invertebrate pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, facing extinction worldwide.
Teller Refuge Executive Director Sam Lawry was familiar with idea behind creating plots filled with nectar-producing flowers and grasses through his previous position with Pheasants Forever. When he heard that NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program had money set aside to help landowners create good places for pollinators to visit, Lawry knew just the spot for one.
“We had this acreage on a field where we normally grow barely that wasn’t producing a whole lot,” Lawry said. “The soil isn’t quite as good there.”
Part of Teller’s mission is to open the eyes of neighboring landowners about the potential of doing something different that’s both good for their land and for the wildlife that uses it.
In the Bitterroot Valley — as in many places in Montana — a lot of landowners have places with a couple of acres who don’t do anything but raise weeds on the portion that’s not their lawn. Larger agricultural places that use pivots to irrigate also often have corners where not much grows.
“There are plenty of places where in the Bitterroot where this could work,” Lawry said.
While the pollinator plots are a boon for bees, they are also great places for song and game birds to hang out. Lawry has spotted ring-necked pheasants and their chicks racing through the undergrowth to feed on the bugs that are the primary source of food for the young birds.
“From a bird’s perspective, it’s a place where they can find a whole smorgasbord of food,” he said.
On a recent morning, Lawry led a tour of the pollinator plot.
With the sound of bees buzzing about, NRCS’ Stacy Welling was happy with what she saw.
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A soil scientist by training, Welling said that while the intention of the plot was to attract pollinators, the heavy cover of vegetation will also benefit the soil over time.
“This large diversity of plants and cooler temperatures on the ground level will help the soil biology,” Wellings said.
The NRCS’ program is designed to work alongside agricultural producers will to help combat future declines of honeybees and other pollinators. The program provides both financial and technical assistance to help participants get their own pollinator plots up and growing.
Wellings said people have to be willing to show that they are serious in creating a plot that will be successful.
“It’s really important that people do field preparation,” she said. “Being able to do some irrigation will also help plants get established.”
In the first few years people can expect to see a good number of weeds mixed in with their new crop of grasses and flowering plants. But as time goes on, the weeds should mostly disappear as the pollinator mix gets established.
Welling expects that the size of the plots in the valley will vary. Applications for the program are ranked. People’s willingness to do some monitoring will enhance their chances of getting funding.
“We do require that people do successful plantings,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t willing to do the site preparation or irrigate. They like the idea of just getting seed, throwing it out on the ground and seeing what happens.”
That approach probably won’t get any funding from the NRCS.
But for those willing to take that extra step, their reward is the knowledge their efforts are making a difference for honeybees and other pollinators that are so important to the food chain.
Florence’s Loren Stormo is president of the Beekeepers of the Bitterroot.
“This is so amazing,” Stormo said as he looked out across the plot that was just buzzing with bees. “I bet the word is out in the bee community about that this is the place to go.”
“Just stand here and close your eyes and listen,” Lawry said. “This field is alive with insects. The plant and insect diversity is key to healthy wildlife habitat and esthetic beauty of the flowering plants is a bonus.”
“This isn’t about getting boots on the ground,” Lawry said. “We’re looking at getting bugs on the ground.”
For more information, people can call Lawry at 406-961-3507 or Welling at 406-361-6186.