Our favorite take-aways from this spring's Pollinator Summit

by Karen Schik

To stay on top of current research and restoration methods, FMR ecologists regularly review publications and attend seminars and conferences. At the recent Pollinator Summit, we picked up a few new ideas we thought FMR supporters would particularly enjoy learning about. (Photo by Tom Reiter at our Ole Olson Park restoration)

FMR ecologists have messy gardens full of leaves from last fall and stalks from last year’s plants — we'll never make the cover of a gardening magazine.

But all that mess has a purpose: Native bees need stalks of old plants to create egg chambers for this year’s brood. (Gardening tip: Leave at least two feet of standing dead stalks to provide the material they need. Some species also use stalks for overwintering, so you could leave cut stalks in a stack somewhere for a few weeks into the spring to allow them to emerge.)

And last year's leaves? Well, FMR has been preaching “leave the leaves” for many years. Not only do those old leaves help retain soil moisture, suppress weeds and provide nutrients, but we recently learned they also protect overwintering bumblebees, which need the insulating leaf layer.

Leaving leaves and plant stalks were just a few snippets from the simple and easily implementable practices relayed recently at the three-day Pollinator Summit: Best Practices for Pollinators, organized by Pollinator Friendly Alliance. But there was so much more, from information about soil invertebrates to recommendations on trees and shrubs for pollinators and results from cutting-edge restoration practices.

Our smallest volunteers

One of our favorite take-home messages was about insects: Did you know there are more than 5,000 invertebrate animals per square meter of soil?

We naturally notice above-ground insects much more readily, but 90% of insects live in the soil. And they're busy doing all kinds of things that are vital to our lives. Many are decomposers, while others voraciously eat seeds of plants we consider weeds.

In fact, many seed-eating beetles preferentially feed on species that we consider annual weeds in our restorations — species like pigweeds and lamb's quarters.

Who knew that we already had crews of tiny restoration helpers at our sites? (Do you think SuperVolunteer t-shirts come in extra-extra-extra small?)

Soil scouting

FMR ecologists continually seek out new information, such as the talks presented at the Pollinator Summit, to help guide our restoration projects and volunteer activities.

This year we'll implement "soil scouting" methods described at the summit. We'll place pit-fall traps in the ground, and volunteers will record and release the insects trapped overnight. We'll do this before and after a prairie restoration to observe how the restoration process may affect soil insect populations.

At a minimum, we would expect to see more insects, especially ants, in healthy soils, and a greater variety of species than in soils that have been tilled and/or don't have good plant cover.

Goat grazing and more

Sometimes at summits and conferences, we learn that we're already implementing techniques that are considered new or promising.

At the summit, practitioners shared beneficial results from haying, which decreased goldenrod (a native plant that can take over many prairie restorations), and from targeted grass-grazing that increased flowering plants.

These are both practices that FMR has been implementing at some of our restoration sites. Given the results seen at this summit, we may look for opportunities to expand their use.

We’re also tracking how site managers have increased the use of goats for invasive species removal, a method that we’ve been using at FMR since 2015. While previously somewhat of a "wild west" in terms of knowledge and effectiveness, the field of goat grazing has substantially improved, and the cost per acre to implement grazing is now approaching that of other common restoration methods.

Check out our ecological research page to learn more about our monitoring projects, pollinator surveys and more.

Want to learn more about supporting pollinators?

Ultimately, we learn a lot at summits like this, and you can too. Visit this link to view some of the recorded talks and learn some tips and tricks you can use to improve pollinator habitat in your yard and community.

Make sure to visit FMR's newly updated Landscape for the River webpages for info on everything from planting for pollinators to installing rain barrels.