Although honey bees — and the challenges they have faced from disease, parasites, pesticide exposure and other issues — have dominated the discussion surrounding pollinator decline over the past two decades, many species contribute to pollination, including butterflies and moths, birds, bats, beetles and other insects.
It is estimated that 1 out of every 3 bites of food eaten in the U.S. depends on pollinators. While disease and parasites have taken a heavy toll on pollinators, human activity has contributed to habitat loss and environmental contaminants that continue to threaten pollinator population.
At the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, part of the University of Georgia, conservation outreach coordinator Lauren Muller (BSA – Horticulture, ’15; MS – Horticulture, ’18) oversees two programs designed to connect people to native plants and to encourage people to put pollinator-friendly plants in their landscapes.
Inspired by a Florida program designed to encourage the use of native plants to conserve rare habitats, Georgia’s program provides information about native plants and how those plants support wildlife and foster connections between garden habitats throughout the state, Muller said.
Connect to Protect
“We are more of a pollinator garden program. We are connecting people to plants that are found native in Georgia, then connecting those plants to the wildlife they support. We are encouraging folks to make thoughtful selections of plant species in their gardens,” Muller said. When these species are widely used in landscapes, they provide a network of habitats for a range of wildlife species throughout their lifecycles.
“People come to us with an established or newly planted garden, and we help them understand how incorporating native plants into these gardens helps to maintain biodiversity in urban and suburban landscapes,” Muller said. Once a garden is certified as a Connect to Protect garden, the program provides educational signage describing the plants and how they support wildlife and biodiversity in urban and suburban areas.
The botanical garden also maintains some Connect to Protect ambassador gardens, including a garden in downtown Athens at College Avenue and Washington Street. Having public gardens in high-traffic areas maintained by the botanical garden helps educate residents on the importance of supporting natural habitat and pollinators.
“A Connect to Protect garden can really look like anything, it just has to have the right plants. It can be as small as a potted garden with a lot of wonderful native plants that are well-suited to a potted display or a large garden,” Muller said. “It is not all or nothing. Someone may have a beautiful, well-established garden they are looking to get Connect to Protect certification for or you can just add and infuse your landscape with these really important species.”
By informing people how certain plants support wildlife — like milkweed being the only plant that supports the caterpillars of migrating monarch butterflies — and bringing attention to factors including loss of host plants, destruction of habitat, climate change and increased pesticide use, the program aims to reverse some of the environmental damage that poses a threat to wildlife.
“The overarching ethic of the program is not just to plant a garden to provide pollen and nectar to pollinators, but to think about native plants that serve a greater ecological purpose, like being a larval host plant or providing seeds certain birds like to eat,” Muller said. “We want to be creative and challenge the status quo. Rather than just planting what is popular in the garden store this year, let’s explore and think of other plants that might be more unique and interesting.”
For individuals, groups or organizations interested in the Connect to Protect program, the botanical garden provides support from science and conservation and education staff to customize a garden to suit the site and individual needs, as well as plant lists of easy to grow species that have ecological value and a directory of nurseries that supply those plants.
Pollinator Plants of the Year
In 2020, a supporting program called Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year was launched to encourage green industry professionals and home gardeners to add pollinator-friendly native plants to their landscapes.
“This program brings together conservation and horticulture, which don’t function independently — one supports the other,” said Muller, who coordinates the Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year program. “It is important for people to think about conservation, the work we are doing and how we can tie it back into the larger ecological system.”
The 2021 Pollinator Plants of the Year are:
- Spring bloomer — conradina (Conradina canescens), also known as wild rosemary, is a fine-textured, evergreen, woody shrub in the mint family with aromatic, needle-like leaves. In spring, the plant is covered in small lavender flowers with purple-spotted throats. It supports many native bees and other pollinators and is ideal for container gardening or garden walls.
- Summer bloomer — sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) is a small, deciduous, densely branched shrub ideal for rain gardens. Panicles of white flowers give off an intoxicating fragrance in the heat of summer and support many native bees.
- Fall bloomer — downy goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris) — not to be confused with ragweed, the true culprit in many allergies — is one of the shorter goldenrods, standing between 1 and 3 feet tall. From August to October, the flowers bloom in dense, spiky clusters, creating a gorgeous yellow plume. This is an excellent plant for bees, wasps and at least 112 species of butterflies and moths.
- Georgia native — butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a drought-tolerant, herbaceous perennial wildflower that reaches 1 to 2 feet tall and is excellent for sunny borders, meadows and containers. This plant serves as the larval host for the monarch butterfly, grey hairstreak, queen butterfly and milkweed tussock moth and provides abundant nectar for many insects and hummingbirds.
Each year, the pollinator plants of the year will be selected from nominations solicited from professionals and the public and ultimately chosen by a selection committee made up of horticulturists, ecologists, entomologists and industry professionals. In the first year, the committee considered about 20 plants and made selections based on horticultural value, ease and speed of propagation and ecological value.
Turfgrasses, which are a dominant component of urban and suburban landscapes, often take some of the blame for pollinator decline, as they are known to be wind-pollinated and were thought not to serve as a pollinator food source. Now UGA and U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers are looking for ways to reverse the decline of pollinator populations by examining centipedegrass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) as a food source for pollinators, with hopes of normalizing low-maintenance, bee-friendly lawns.
In recently published articles in the Journal of Entomological Science and Insects, UGA and USDA researchers identified bees that were collecting pollen from the flowers of centipedegrass. The study was led by College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) faculty Shimat Joseph and David Jespersen on the UGA Griffin campus alongside USDA researcher Karen Harris-Shultz in Tifton, Georgia.
“Insect pollinators are frequently described in the media as needing help, and homeowners may not realize that their lawns could help these insect pollinators. They also may be applying insecticides to their centipedegrass lawns and may not realize they may be harming bee populations,” said Harris-Shultz, a USDA research geneticist.
The long-term goal of the study is to promote bee-friendly grasses. Some types of turfgrasses require large amounts of water and fertilizer, and homeowners often use insecticides and herbicides to control insects and weeds, but centipedegrass is low maintenance by comparison. It is used for lawns, parks and golf course roughs and is well adapted to the sandy, acidic soils of the Southeastern U.S. Now, researchers like Joseph and his team are realizing that centipedegrass is useful for much more.
“The knowledge that centipedegrass lawns can be beneficial to pollinators is a complete change in thought about turfgrasses,” Harris-Shultz said. “There is an environmental benefit to growing centipedegrass as it does require minimal care. Additionally, by providing a food source to bees, these bees may pollinate other economically important crop plants.”
The next step is determining how to enhance centipedegrass to make it even more useful for bees while maintaining its low-input growing patterns.
The importance of maintaining bee habitats has become undoubtably clear. Bees require nectar and pollen to continue to play their critical role in the ecosystem, supporting the growth of trees, flowers and other plants that serve as food and shelter for various creatures, including humans.
“Our research will help us to have lawns with improved benefits, which take into consideration ecological aspects beyond the aspects normally attributed to lawns,” Harris-Shultz said.
Read more about how research at CAES is supporting pollinators at hort.caes.uga.edu.