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Saving the bees, butterflies with a pollinator garden

August 08, 2019 12:00 AM
By: Tara Callahan-Henry

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You may ask yourself, "Why would highway engineers concern themselves with butterfly gardens and honey bees?"

The answer – a mutually vested interest in pollen.

It's a simple, yet delicate, relationship between humans, insects, and plants. It's also the very fine line between life and death for us all.

PennDOT staff at a Huntingdon County stock pile facility are working to establish a pollinator garden as part of a larger plan to create corridors for migrating species of insects, like the Monarch butterfly, that have been threatened and endangered.

Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are almost exclusively responsible for the pollination of crops, which makes their survival critical for ours. These insects travel from flower to flower, gathering pollen from the blooms. As they do, they transfer it to other plants – providing a sort of "service in kind" to help them reproduce.

Environmental Manager Tom Yocum is working with the new PennDOT Pollinator Work Group to find ways for the department to support pollinator conservation.

He enlisted the expertise of our Huntingdon County maintenance manager, Mike Peachey.

"As we thought about how to execute this project, Mike immediately came to mind," Yocum said. "Asking him to take the lead on this was a no-brainer, knowing about his personal interest in saving pollinator species."

Peachey keeps bee hives at his home and gladly offered his knowledge and skill to help with the garden.

"We have two colonies of bees at my father-in-law's house and working with him got me interested in honey bees and what they do for us," Peachey said. "So, when Tom came to me with the idea of a garden at the district, I immediately said I'd help, because I understand the environmental impact of bees and their disappearance."

Peachey and his team took a ¾-acre section of land at the stock pile and planted a temporary assortment of wildflowers this spring to allow proper turnover of the soil from grass to garden. The permanent mix of perennials will be planted this fall.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission played a large part in the garden's creation, as well, lending a crew and equipment to clear and dig the plot.

Yocum sees multiple benefits for the addition of the garden and the possibility of planting them across the state.

"While the primary purpose of the gardens is to help save pollinators, we can take advantage of an opportunity to receive pre-listing conservation credits for insect species that may be listed as threatened or endangered," he explained.

Monarch butterflies are at risk of being listed as endangered, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to help prevent their extinction and offers environmental credits as incentives for landowners, government agencies, and others to engage in efforts that benefit declining species before their formal addition to any endangered species list.

"These credits can help PennDOT on future highway improvement projects that have impacts to similar habitats," Yocum added. "Further, the gardens can eliminate lawn care frequency and maintenance expense for the districts, build goodwill with the public, and help educate Pennsylvanians on the importance of protecting pollinator species."

After assessing the feasibility of this one test site, other garden plots may be planted next season and beyond.