This project will hire a University of Minnesota Horticulture student to help us install a two-acre Native Bee/Pollinator Meadow at our 10-acre, non-profit farm. The Bee Meadow will provide a hands-on learning experience for American Indian youth in our programs to learn about pollinators, habitat, and native plants.
In Minnesota, there are approximately 400 species of native bees that provide vital pollination services and are an important component of species diversity. Research suggests that our wild bee populations are also declining due to habitat loss and widespread use of pesticides. Yet these native species are best adapted to the climate and pollination needs of our native plants. Prairie plant communities have co-evolved to provide these resources, but have been displaced to one tenth of a percent of pre-settlement coverage in Minnesota. We are in dire need of restoring prairies to our landscape if we are to avoid the uncertainties of pollinator extinctions and greater ecological collapse. Our project, Native Youth Plant a Bee Meadow, addresses recent declines in pollinator populations with the installation of a Bee Meadow.
Thanks to support from SARE, we have completed the first stage of installation for a 1.7 acre restored mixed height dry prairie. This effort is in response to the drastic population decline of native bees and other pollinators which we are dependent on for the pollination of about one third of our produce. Pollinators are also key to mixing the genetic diversity of many flowering plants which is essential for the resilience of ecosystems in an era of global climate change.
At the back end of our farm, two acres lie directly beneath a large electric utility pole. After leaving these acres in cover crop for several years to help the soil recover from years of conventional farming, we designated this area for the installation of our Bee Meadow. Our land is surrounded by farms using conventional agriculture practices that include regular use of pesticides and very limited pollinator habitat. Our plan included working with Beth Markhart, a senior consultant at Cardno and long-term supporter of the organization, as an advisor on this project, and hiring a recent graduate from the U of M Horticulture school to coordinate the project. The acreage was prepared and planted with native plants that are adapted to local soils and climate. The entire process provided a hands-on learning experience for Native American youth in our programs.
In the 3-5 year process of establishing some 41 species of native flowering plants and 9 species of native grasses, we hope to inspire our youth to take on the calling of ecological restoration. As these native plants establish, we will be using the Bee meadow as a space to teach plant and pollinator identification. We also have the opportunity to learn and teach about the traditional uses of these native prairie plants. We pray for the success of our prairie restoration effort and that it will provide good habitat for our pollinators who contribute to the resilience of Dream of Wild Health.
For our project, Native Youth Plant a Bee Meadow, we planned and implemented a prairie restoration project that covers 1.7 acres. The goals of the restoration efforts include:
– establishing Forbes and grasses that represent pre-settlement plant communities and ecotype of a mesic-dry tall grass prairie of central Minnesota
– providing a diversity of pollen and nectar sources throughout the growing season for native bees, butterflies, moths, flies and wasps
-Provide a range of undisturbed over wintering habitat and nesting sites for pollinators
-Educate youth and the larger community about the decline in native pollinator populations and the implications for agriculture with the loss of native pollinator services
In spring, 2015, we held several planning meetings that included the Project Coordinator, Aidan Shaughnessy, a recent graduate of the University of MN Horticulture program, Farm Manager Heather Drake, Executive Director Diane Wilson, and volunteer advisor, Beth Markhart. Once the initial planning was reviewed and in place, we invited the Program Manager, Estella LaPointe, to participate in planning the youth program activities. Rather than hiring an intern as was originally proposed, we decided to work with the 28 Native Garden Warriors who were participating in our summer programs. Each of the Garden Warriors is paid a stipend for participating in our programs.
Site preparation began with a vegetation survey of the site. The pre-existing plant diversity was low and dominated by Smooth Brome grass, Quack grass, and Kentucky bluegrass. Forbes were Canada Goldenrod, field bind weed, Cinquefoil and blue Gentian. Woody plants were Siberian Elm.
The Site was slowly mowed in sections to allow insects and other wildlife opportunity to vacate. After the entire site was mowed with a brush mower on a tractor, a drag harrow was run across the entire site in an attempt to pick up thatch from mowing. Drag harrowing resulted in clumping of thatch, but was relatively ineffective at removing it. Students from a program called H.E.C.U.A. volunteered the 7th of October raking up thatch and removing it from the restoration area. The area was then disked to break up the soil and provide good seed to soil contact. After the initial disking, it was determined that patches of Brome grass and Kentucky bluegrass were too thick to provide a good seed bed. We then rented a sod cutter to remove these thickly matted grasses. Sod strips were rolled up and removed from the restoration site. Two thirds of the area was then disked twice more in opposite directions to break up any residual thatch or matted grass patches. Many clumps of quack grass were removed from the site to mitigate re-establishment. The restoration area was drag harrowed to smooth the area in preparation to broadcast the native seed mix.
The custom native seed mix ordered from “Prairie Moon” includes 39 herbaceous forbs species, two woody shrubs and 9 species of Native grasses. This seed mix is from appropriate ecotypes that were harvested within 75 miles of our site. This mix shares roughly 75% species correlation of the Southern dry prairie (Ups13) from the DNR guide book to ’Native Plant Communities of Minnesota’. This seed mix was broadcast at a rate of ten pounds per acre with an addition of 3 pounds per acre of annual winter oats to hold soils in the first year.
The seed mix was broadcast the 22nd and 23rd of October utilizing all staff of Dream of Wild Health and other volunteers. The seed mix was combined with vermiculite 1:3 to enhance visibility of where broadcast seed has landed and to protect against disproportionate broadcasting. The entire seed mix will be split into two parts and the site will be broadcast seeded by hand in a grid one direction and then seeded again in a perpendicular direction to ensure even distribution of seed spread.
After seed was broadcast, it was raked in the soil 1/8-1/4” to protect against herbivory erosion and to provide good seed to soil contact. The site was then cultipacked with a roller to protect the site against erosion. The native seed mix will stratify over the winter to overcome their cold dormancy requirements.
The first season management plan (2016) is to mow the site in sections to 6” when vegetation reaches heights of 12-18” or about every three weeks. This is to allow sunlight to reach slow growing native plants during establishment and to cut back annual weeds and keep winter oats from going to seed.
The second year management plan is to spot mow where native plants are slow to establish. If smooth brome grass is particularly thick in some patches, a late spring burn is suggested for those areas. It is also recommended that a prescribed burn be enacted every 3-5 years in a prairie restoration to cut back on woody plant establishment.
An earlier plan of doing various site preparations included two different prescribed burns in spring and fall, as well as solarizing an area. This spring season was particularly busy with planting of vegetable crops and didn’t allow time for a spring burn. We were also strongly encouraged by an indigenous farmer from Bolivia not to burn the field and waste organic material that could be returned to the soil. Going forward with this restoration effort, if some areas are outcompeted by invasives, we may reconsider limited use of burns and solarizing.
Native youth in our summer programs (ages 8-18) were engaged throughout the summer with lessons from program and farm staff. Youth learned the cultural importance of regarding all pollinators as relatives to be treated with respect. Throughout the summer, they helped with maintenance of the honey bee hives as a hands-on lesson in learning more about pollination and becoming comfortable around bees. Program staff led several Bee Meadow site tours prior to installation to discuss process and identify current plants and pollinators in the area.
Farmer lessons focused on the pressures that native pollinators face including displacement from habitat from urban sprawl that has transformed large portions of land to concrete, asphalt, turf grass and edifices. Industrial agriculture has converted tremendous areas to monocrops of corn and soybeans that offer limited nectar and pollen sources. Conventional farms are also regularly sprayed with pesticides and herbicides that directly or inadvertently kill pollinators and other beneficial insects. Habitat fragmentation inhibits free migration through various biomes causing inbreeding depression when populations are critically small. Global climate change threatens many aspects of our ecosystems, but in particular the synchronizing of pollinator life cycle requirements with altered bloom times of flowering plants.
Students were walked through the general life cycle of mining bees, Monarchs and cabbage white butterflies. Differences in where adults lay their eggs were explained, using the example of miner bees laying their eggs in a cavity in the soil with a store of ‘bee bread’ (a combination of pollen and nectar) where they reside from egg through the larval stage and pupation until they emerge from the soil as adults. This differs from the Monarch whose eggs are laid on milkweed specifically and spend their larval stage foraging on the leaves of milkweed, using its toxins as a defense mechanism, until they pupate.
Students learned about different nesting requirements including exposed soil, leaf litter piles, hollow stemmed plants, and dead wood with examples of the bee genera for each. This lesson also demonstrated how to construct a homemade nesting site of bamboo segments bunched together.
Another lesson focused on eight different native plants that bloom through the entire growing season. Students were acquainted with nursery plants of Prairie smoke, Wild Monarda, Compass Plant, Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Clover, Prairie Cone Flower, Gray Goldenrod and Rough Prairie Blazing star. This included a list of pollinators that utilize Wild Monarda and Rough prairie Blazing Star as well as some medicinal uses for both of these plants. Students transplanted these plants in randomly mixed pattern in an area known as the medicine garden that is near to the field growing indigenous corn, squash and beans. While they planted, students discussed with staff the importance of supporting pollinators who help ensure the health of our indigenous crops, contributing to the cycle of life for all living beings.
As a non-profit, one of our priorities is teaching American Indian youth and families about sustainable agriculture, including responsible stewardship for our land and water, and learning about the essential relationship between pollinators and plants. Many of the youth in our programs come from low-income, inner city neighborhoods and have few opportunities for this kind of learning. Our programs are free to Native youth and we provide daily transportation. With this project, we provided a hands-on learning experience about creating a wildflower-rich habitat to support pollinators.
By November, 2015, we had planned, prepared and installed the first stage of a mesic-dry tall grass prairie on 1.7 acres at Dream of Wild Health farm. In 2016, our Bee Meadow will begin to provide a diversity of pollen and nectar sources throughout the growing season for native bees, butterflies, moths, flies and wasps, and provide a range of undisturbed over-wintering habitat and nesting sites for pollinators.
This project also provided an opportunity to educate Native youth and the larger community about the decline in native pollinator populations and the implications for agriculture.
Impact of Results/Outcomes
Teaching our youth about the role of pollinators in supporting the food we grow at the farm provides an extremely important cultural lesson about our relationships with plants, insects, and birds. The Pollinator Meadow gave us an invaluable teaching tool with regard to pollination, native plants, pesticides, global warming, etc. Through a series of lessons from program staff and farmers, youth learned about the variety of pollinators, their role in sustaining a large number of popular foods, and threats to their existence. We gave special focus to native bees as uniquely suited to pollinate native plants, both of which are adapted to this region.
Youth also learned that the Pollinator Meadow supports our work in growing out a collection of rare, indigenous seeds. As we are especially focused on returning these seeds as food for our community, pollinators are extremely important to establishing a local food system based on indigenous foods.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Surrounded as we are by conventional farms, this project helped us provide an alternative model for using marginal land to re-establish pollinator habitat. We hosted two community feasts where families, neighbors and local officials are given tours of the farm, including the site for the Bee Meadow. Throughout the summer, we hosted numerous groups of volunteers, school classes, and offered tours for Native and non-Native organizations interested in our work. All of these events provided opportunities for educating our community about the importance of supporting wild pollinators. Our Fall newsletter included photographs and a short summary of the project.
We were invited by the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine to write an article about the Pollinator Meadow for their 2016 summer issue. Our youngest Garden Warrior is an aspiring journalist who helped interview youth about the project and then wrote a short essay. Their grasp of the important connection between the pollinators and our saved seeds was impressive!
This project also attracted interest and funding support from First Nations Development Institute, a Native funder with nationally-based programs. The results of our project will be included in their publications and at conferences.
Dream of Wild Health has long been active in sharing its work at conferences across the country. In 2016, we will continue to attend and present at indigenous and sustainable farming conferences, including a discussion of the Bee Meadow as an important aspect of our work.
As is true of everything we do at the farm, the Pollinator Meadow will become a teaching tool for identifying native plants and pollinators, and discussing their vital role in a healthy ecosystem. Care and maintenance will become part of farm activities for youth in 2016.
The bee meadow is expected to enhance ecological functioning beyond the services pollinators provide to crops. Native forbes tend to support a higher diversity of native insects, soil microbial activity, amphibians and avian populations. Given that prairie lands in Minnesota are down to .01% of their pre-colonial presence, a bee meadow will act as a small refugee for prairie community species.
With the establishment of a supportive pollinator habitat, we anticipate:
- Increased honey production compared to prior year
- Increased vegetable yields compared to prior year
- Long-term productivity of the orchard will be increased (not yet fruit-bearing)
Many of the forbes that will be used in the bee meadow have traditional uses as herbal medicines for the indigenous people of the prairies. The bee meadow has the potential to greatly expand the sustainable cultivation and distribution of those key herbal medicines.
We are deeply grateful for the support we have received from NCR-SARE for this project! We anticipate that the Pollinator Meadow will be an important aspect of our programming for Native youth and families.