Pollinator planting kicks off statewide project

A landscape restoration just north of the Biorenewables Research Laboratory will nourish pollinators and serve as a model for an effort to plant similar patches of habitat this year in communities across Iowa.

An all-day event May 10, with the opportunity for anyone to pitch in to help with planting, will kick off the project, which also will seed community pollinator gardens in 10 additional Iowa counties, said Lynne Campbell, a STEM education specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach's 4-H Youth Development program.

Partners on the project include extension and outreach, facilities planning and management (FPM), student organization The Green Umbrella, a Professional and Scientific Council employee interest group, students in a landscape architecture class and the nonprofits funding the work with an $80,000 grant -- Keep Iowa Beautiful and the Alliant Energy Foundation, Campbell said. 

"It's a complex and somewhat convoluted project involving multiple partners across campus, but without that convolution this project wouldn't be happening. It's probably one of my favorite projects I've ever worked on, in terms of something that could have a long-lasting impact and is an example of the land-grant mission in action," she said.

'Time to act'

Campbell, known to some Iowa children as the "caterpillar lady," was a natural to head up the Plant Iowa Beautiful grant. She co-created several youth outreach programs focused on pollinators (Monarchs on the Move and Native Bee Challenge), provides outreach for the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium's ISU research group and leads a new P&S Council peer advisory committee interest group called P3: Pollinators, Plants and People.

Pollinators such as butterflies and bees are crucial to the survival of most flowering plants, including about one-third of the world's food crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Populations of pollinating insects have been shrinking in recent decades, including an 80% drop since the mid-1990s in monarch butterflies, an iconic bellwether for pollinator health, Campbell said.

One factor in falling monarch numbers is the loss of milkweed plants, the only place where female monarchs will lay eggs and the only food monarch caterpillars will eat. Planting milkweed helps monarchs and planting nectar plants benefits other pollinating insects. 

"Because of research efforts, we know what to do. Now is the time to act," Campbell said. 

Plan comes together

Campbell wanted to identify a campus location for the project's first plot, a search assisted when a student member of Green Umbrella inquired with P&S Council president Chris Johnsen about planting pollinator habitat near Printing and Publications Building, where he works. Johnsen referred the student to Campbell, who connected with the student organization's adviser, sustainability director Merry Rankin.

Rankin put Campbell in touch with FPM campus services staff, who had several suggestions for ideal places for planting pollinators on campus. A sunken garden south of the large steel blue sculpture in the College of Design's courtyard was selected because it previously was home to pollinator-friendly plants. Though in need of replanting, the site doesn't require major prep work, which helped the plan coalesce quickly, Campbell said.

At the May 10 event at the garden site, students from a landscape architecture class taught by associate professor Julie Stevens will make presentations on pollinator garden design, FPM will plant a pollinator-supporting black gum tree for Arbor Day and county representatives will be on hand for an orientation. Everyone is invited to get their hands dirty during the community planting portion beginning at 10:30 a.m. Lunch is available for planting participants who register by May 7. See the online registration form to sign up or see the full schedule of events. 

The planting also serves as the inaugural in-person event for the P3 interest group, and P&S staff who would like more information about P3 are encouraged to attend. Since February, the group has been promoting free milkweed planting kits available through the ISU Extension Store, developed in spring 2020 as a hands-on STEM activity for schools during remote learning. They're available to anyone. More than 500 kits have been distributed since February and, since 2020, more than 1,000 to schools, Campbell said.

New phase in fall

Over the summer, pollinator habitats will be planted in the other counties supported by the grant, mostly in public areas such as schools, parks or fairgrounds: Cerro Gordo, Jasper, Jefferson, Keokuk, Lee, Lucas, Marshall, Washington and Winneshiek.

The grant also calls for identifying small rural plots in the fall to plant new pollinator habitat, using unproductive farm ground that probably should not be farmed. While community pollinator gardens are important for raising awareness and every bit helps, strategies to reverse pollinator population loss rely on increasing planting pollinator habitat on small plots of nonproductive land, Campbell said.

"We need more habitat without taking farmland, so we have to take advantage of every space we can," she said. "While in Iowa, our farm land is used to feed the world, we also need to identify spaces that can be restored as habitat to feed pollinators. We certainly appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with the Alliant Energy Foundation and Keep Iowa Beautiful to make this happen.