Bee by Seraiah Gibbins

Honey bee (Image credit: Seraiah Gibbins)

We’ve been hearing it for over a decade now – the state of pollinators worldwide is not in great shape. For the United States, the grim theme of this spiraling story of ecological decline and human arrogance holds true. As the compound result of land clearing, pesticides, disease and climate change, we’re seeing more and more of the innumerable insects and mammals that flower our fields and put food on our tables getting shunted to the brink of extinction. Last year, a report by the UN warned that 40% of invertebrate pollinators could be lost.

Not everyone’s twiddling their thumbs or letting drop their hands in despair though. In Iowa, the City of Cedar Rapids and a local non-profit have sought to do something about it. Launched in partnership with the Monarch Research Project (who is raising private funds and awareness), and backed by state grant funding, the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative has set a 5-year goal to make the most of unproductive public lands by turning them into ‘pollinator zones’. Starting May this year, this means that areas like City utility lands, golf courses, right-of-ways, neighborhood parks and vast, 82-acres of City greenway will be sown with a 37-seed mix of native prairie and wildflowers, with the aim to bring the region’s pollinators back into life.

Like all good ideas, the initiative took root during a conversation between Monarch Research Project’s Clark McLeod and Cedar Park Rapids Superintendent Daniel Gibbins.

“Clark asked, ‘Well, how many acres would you like to see?’” says Gibbins, speaking to the Blythewood Bee Company via a long-range Skype call earlier this April. “I threw out ‘1,000 acres. I’d love to see 1,000 acres of public habitat installed.’ Because we can use that.”

As park superintendent, Gibbins understands his role as a “steward of resources to the public.” It’s part of his job, he reasons, to make sure that nature and community do as much for each other as possible. Looking around his hometown, he saw mosaic-like swatches and vast swathes of land that could collectively be improved. What’s more, as a father of four young kids and with a background in resource management and forestry, he understood the importance of creating healthier living spaces which would benefit generations down the line.

Gibbins is firm in stating, however, that it was the partnership with McLeod’s Monarch Research Project that catalyzed the launch of such a bold initiative. With so many city priorities needing resources it was the relationships, networking and hard work by the Monarch Research Project that made the project possible, he says. “It really is the perfect example of what a public/private partnership should look like and can accomplish for a community.”

It’ll make for “a really neat marketing effect too,” Gibbins remembers thinking. “Because ‘1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative. That’ll really catch some attention.’”

He wasn’t wrong. When the media got wind of what Cedar Rapids and their partners were doing, the story snowballed, with coverage from such sizeable outlets like The Huffington Post and Australia’s Popular Science magazine. As a positive news story – timed in amidst the turbid maelstrom of prospective cuts to the EPA, the revival of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and executive orders like this one – it hit all the right points. It’s forward-thinking yet grounded in facts; it’s sort of genius, but also has a certain crystalized, common-sense obviousness. Most inspiring of all, the initiative makes for a paragon example of collaboration between government, community, universities, and various organizations and private donors. “It’s not about just throwing prairie grass out there,” says Gibbins. “It’s about developing something long-term.”

What makes a pollinator zone?

Gibbins makes clear the initiative commands a lot more thinking, strategy and effort beyond just scattering seeds. Once pollinator zones were identified, catalogued and approved, the land had to be readied for planting – a process which began for the Cedar Parks team last fall. Clearing was carried out through manual labor and burning – but also herbicides, Gibbins says, rather ruefully, seeing chemical control measures as something of a necessary evil.

“Any urban area right now is just loaded with invasive species,” explains Gibbins. “When prairie and wildflowers are established, it’s a healthy community – they can actually out-compete a lot of the invasives. But when it’s young, you’ve got to reduce that competition.”

It will be mid-May when the first half set of the prairie and wildflowers will be laid down. The rest is scheduled for November, to be laid down at a grassy 82-acreage spot out near the Sac and Fox Trail. Here, the Cedar Rapids team will test a ‘dormant seeding’ approach.

It comes down to timing. Where wildflowers need to ‘cold stratify’ in the ground before germination, prairie grasses shoot up immediately when it’s warm. By allowing this second pollinator mix to sit in the cool soil over winter, the idea is that it will synchronize its germination in June next year. The comparative results of spring and winter seeding will supplement research studies conducted by Iowa universities, and inform the park’s own strategy looking forward in the future.

“It’s going to be interesting,” says Gibbins, voice tinged with an eco-nerd’s excitement.

The science behind the seeding

Monarch by Seraiah Gibbins

Monarch Butterfly (Image Credit: Seraiah Gibbins)

Deciding which wildflowers and native grasses to plant was another calibrated science for the team. From the 300-odd species of prairie native to Iowa, the team settled on a 37 forb-seed mix with another 7 species of grasses. To support pollinators of all types throughout their full life cycles, a blend was created which would have nectar flowing from spring to fall – which meant adding flowers like coreopsis, coneflowers and asters.

Another priority was to choose species that would “ensure the long-term integrity of the prairie structure,” says Gibbins.

“For instance, big bluestem here – it’s a really aggressive native tall grass. It’s a good species, but due to the morphology of the plant, it can actually suffocate out forbs [local wildflowers] over the long haul. So we have that in the mix, but only at a 10th of a pound per acre.” In greater ratios are grasses like little bluestem, dropseeds, prairie junegrass and Indian grass, which “have more of a clumping structure to allow long-term forbs to really be successful.”

Although prairie grass doesn’t provide nectar to pollinators directly, its indirect and other ecosystem benefits are significant. It acts as a protective guard to the wildflowers, defending their relatively fragile bodies from invasives, soil disturbance and water run-off. And with its deep root system, prairie grass holds the land together – “in a floodplain setting, if you have a well-established setting, it will not erode,” avers Gibbins.

For the Linn County community, this is more than just a fact. In 2008, the region experienced the worst flooding in its recorded history – banks bursting, water hissing, and the township 12ft underwater. This was, the people said, “the city that would never flood”. There can be little doubt that the loss of almost 70% of original prairie has weakened the integrity of the landscape, putting all who live off it in jeopardy as a result. Restoring some of this hardy vegetation could save property, livestock, millions of dollars – and lives.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that on a regular mown lawn, you have about a few inches of roots,” says Gibbins. “Prairie can go down to about 10-12 feet. So you have a structure which is there, putting pores into the soil, so the infiltration rate of rainfall and what the soil will absorb is incredible in a prairie. There’s so many different benefits – and a lot of us think it’s actually beautiful.

“We’re not against mowing grass,” he adds with a chuckle. “You’ve got to have a place to throw a frisbee and have soccer. But we’re incorporating these [grasses] into the overall landscape with all of the above in mind.”

‘Bringing back the wild into everyday spaces’

The philosophy behind the initiative is ultimately the coexistence and deeper connection of man and nature. It’s a holistic vision of conservation management, which seeks to dismantle barriers and enrich daily lives. Too often these days, Gibbins argues, we’re choosing to live in a sterilized, synthetic, smartphone-addicted world – and it’s not doing any of us any good. Studies have shown that being around nature is linked to improved physical and mental health – something as simple as sitting on a park bench for 30 minutes can reduce your risk of high blood pressure and depression. And – despite what all the post-apocalypse movies would have you believe – introducing nature into urban life doesn’t mean the end of civilized order, or a descent into tangled chaos.

“How we see wild, how we see nature – I think we have a problem with it,” says Gibbins. “We have this idea that ‘let’s segregate it off in a reserve, or some area that we can go visit occasionally.’ We really need to change our thinking; we need to bring back nature and bring back the wild into our everyday spaces.”

The initiative is designed to nurture this new attitude in practical ways – with education, conversation and recreation as guiding principles. Local schools and libraries are getting involved; among the Cedar Rapids parks and trails, art-based signage will be installed; and individuals can learn more through conferences and ecofests. Next month, Clark McLeod has invited Linn County landowners and farmers with large acreage holdings down at his property for a Linn Land Owner Forum, where they will get information first-hand on developing practices to diversify crops and reinvigorate underproductive lands.

Conversation and conservation as going hand in hand

Fritillary on Coneflower by Seraiah Gibbins

Fritillary on Coneflower (Image Credit: Seraiah Gibbins)

Above all, and as a representative of Cedar Parks, Gibbins advocates civic, civil, open-party conversation. No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, or “who happens to be in Washington at the time” he says, simply sitting down at the table and hashing something out is the best way to solve problems, enhance learning and overcome challenges together.

Part of this means partnering for the future with other departments and organizations. Sharing is a keystone of the scientific community ethos – and Cedar Rapids Parks is aware that it’s the only way in which real progress can be made.

“We share all of our information,” Gibbins says. “We don’t have a claim that we’re the source of all knowledge on this; we’re just trying to do something significant like everyone else is. When you dive headfirst into something like this, it’s good to be able to share in what you’ve learned and learn from the rest of them.”

Involving the public is just as crucial. “Thankfully, gone are the days – at least at a state and local level – where we just went into a room and made decisions for the public,” Gibbins says. “Now we understand that you’ve got to engage the public, and make use of their feedback.”

He gives an example of a local neighborhood, which had voiced concerns about how a pollinator zone could interrupt recreation on a small area of land nearby. Along with a Parks and Rec commission member, Gibbins put together a bunch of material, and gathered around to a meeting at one of their homes.

“About 30 of the neighbors came over, and we sat down with them that evening and we described the entire initiative – all the benefits, and how we wanted to design it into the park to still allow all that active recreation, and install it as a place where people could be involved. By the end of the meeting, the concern went to total support – ‘how can we help, how can we volunteer’. It was incredible.”

Another lady phoned in recently, worried about bee stings. In her description of a recent attack however, it turned out the assailant was not a bee at all, but a yellowjacket wasp. Gibbins had also fallen prey to a yellowjacket back in Missouri, and could sympathize.

“I was able to contact that person and just have that conversation a little bit more – like, ‘Yeah they’re super-aggressive, but they don’t have anything to do with flowers or prairie’; they often go into animal holes, and they go after caterpillars and stuff.

“I don’t disregard any concern out there, I think it’s just a matter of learning something new,” says Gibbins. “And we can all learn from each other.”

From temporary state program to ongoing grassroots initiative

With state funding, Monarch Research Project support, private sponsors, and various current and prospective grants, the initiative looks like it’s well on track to reach its 1,000-acre goal within the 5-year timeframe. It’ll mean a lot of work for the Cedar Parks team – “this is kind of something we just took on, along with our regular duties,” says Gibbins – but he has faith in Linn County’s strong spirit of volunteerism to see them through. An overall goal for the county including private and corporate landowners has been set by Monarch Research Project for 10,000 acres.

The real measure of success, however, will be how much the community itself actively adopts the conservation focus in the long-term. Ultimately, the hope is that locals and businesses will take it upon themselves to create their own pollinator zones, beyond the scope of the program – which will leave its legacy as an organic, grassroots initiative.

“That’s sort of why we’re doing this,” says Gibbins. “Government agencies can’t solve the problem. If we as individuals don’t change our way of thinking across all of the United States and around the world, well – we’re just not ever going to do enough to conserve our pollinators.”

What can ordinary citizens do?

Cedar Rapids Sac and Fox Prairie

Cedar Rapids Sac and Fox Prairie (Image Credit: Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation)

Gibbins gives a few pointers on how you can help your community’s pollinators:

  • Adopt a ‘green is good’ worldview: “First understand that we ourselves are the most important factors in this whole equation. Slow down and stop and rethink something – how we’re living our lives. And just take time to learn about this. It doesn’t matter if you have clover or dandelions in your yard – those aren’t bad things. Bees need them.”
  • Make choices that are good for your land and you: “Reassess what does look better, and what is valuable. Resist the impulse to call a lawn company because ‘I want to have my lawn sprayed down with herbicide and fertilizer so it looks better than my neighbor’s.’”
  • Get educated on your area’s native plants: “When you have your yard and your landscape, learn about some of those native plants, wherever you are – because it’s different for everyone. A native in one place is a non-native in another place.”
  • Consider land conversion: “If you have a big property, can you use these areas you could convert back to what was there before. It’s really pretty fun and pretty simply – it doesn’t have to be scary. You can start with a 3×4 foot landscape, and do some milkweed. My daughter took a time-lapse collage of raising a monarch – so there’s the chrysalis, it’s starting to come out, then finally it’s hanging on her finger. Y’know that’s just really fun and it gets us away from our smartphones as well. Unplug a little.”
  • Be proactive in communicating with local authorities: “Wherever you are, have a talk with your public officials and representatives – have those general conversations of what you want to see. A lot of people don’t contact their community leadership until they’re irritated. Instead, try explaining why these things are important to you, but in a supportive way. That’ll get a lot of help.”

By Kate Prendergast

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