Plight of Pollinators

by Dr. Sarah Treanor Bois
Director of Research & Education at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation

While honeybees get most of the attention, pollinators actually include anything that moves pollen from one plant to another; namely bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, small mammals, bats, and even some lizards. On Nantucket, we mainly have pollinating insects and birds. Pollinators provide a vital service helping plants reproduce and increase genetic diversity. Without pollinators, the food we eat and the plants we enjoy would not exist.

Recent declines in commercial honey bee colonies nationally, and the potential impacts on crop production, have heightened attention on the plight of pollinators. The decline of our own native pollinators also comes into question. Although many groups of native pollinators remain understudied and poorly understood, there is increasing evidence of alarming declines in some species. Many pollinators depend upon open habitats and canopy gaps for foraging, and recent studies suggest that, in the Northeastern United States, grasslands and barrens support a unique native pollinator assemblage. These habitats require active management, are in decline, and have been identified as priority conservation targets in many states. Nantucket, with its sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands, has many of these habitats available for native pollinators.

pollinators | Nantucket, MAIn 2018, a regional network of experimental adaptive management sites was established with funding from the State Wildlife Grant program awarded through the Northeast Regional Conservation Needs Program. This group will coordinate management and monitoring of native pollinators and their habitats leading to management improvements over time.

This region-wide study on pollinators, called Habitat for Pollinators, is the first of its kind, allowing land managers and researchers to coordinate efforts across state boundaries. At this point, groups from New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, as well as Massachusetts are involved, and this number may increase in the coming year. Groups from up and down the east coast are participating in this study to understand native pollinator diversity as it relates to available habitat and habitat management. The main objective is to improve the ability of Northeast states to implement cost-effective habitat management for the benefit of native pollinators. Through an adaptive management framework, results from the experimental management will be used to improve awareness and implementation of best practices across the region.

On Nantucket, both the Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF) as well as the Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF) have signed on to the project. This involves collecting pollinators four times during the growing season as well as vegetation sampling to better understand the relationship between pollinators and available habitat.

Grasslands up and down the east coast, including our own sandplain grasslands, offer unique assemblages of plants and likely pollinators. As these habitats are lost to development, succession, and non-native species, pollinators lose important nectar sources and breeding areas. This is an important opportunity for our local groups to participate in a region-wide study and learn about our own native pollinators.

pollinators | Nantucket, MAThis project combines passive collection (where pollinators are attracted to collection traps) and targeted collection via sweep netting on specific native plants. On Nantucket, we have already conducted three out of four growing- season surveys. After each collection, samples are sent to the University of Massachusetts Amherst where they are identified and added to the collections. For Nantucket, LLNF and NCF benefit by contributing to the larger study, learning about adaptive management techniques to improve native pollinator habitat, and by learning more about the diversity of local pollinators.

Although this project will produce many benefits during the five-year implementation period, the main goal is to establish a framework for the longerterm monitoring and experimental adaptive management that is needed to improve management for these complex, early successional systems. The connections made through this project will continue beyond the duration of the initial grant. As land managers, LLNF and NCF can use the information gathered to improve management techniques throughout the year.

What can you do to help native pollinators? Start in your own yard!

  • Plant native species!
  • Lay off the pesticides. Most sprays are non-specific, so if you try and kill one thing, you could actually be killing all the bees and butterflies as well.
  • Provide a diversity of pollinator-friendly plants with various bloom times ensuring availability throughout the growing season.
  • Provide water sources. During the hot, dry summer, even small pollinators could use some water.
  • Don’t clean up every area of your garden. Fallen plant material and twigs can provide important habitat and breeding areas. Please leave at least a small portion of your yard with some debris.
  • Support your local conservation organization! These groups, like LLNF and NCF, do a lot to support native pollinators and manage important habitat.