Protecting our pollinators

A male Monarch butterfly nectars from a sunflower. A male Monarch butterfly can be identified by the two black spots on the back of its wings.

Take a look at the butterflies and bees in a garden, and the colorful flowers they feed on for nectar. They all serve a $24 billion purpose.

Pollinator species are responsible for one out of every three bites of food, pollinating 87 of the world’s 124 leading food crops, according to the United Nations.

Pollinators contribute about $24 billion to the U.S. economy, including $15 billion from bees alone, the White House estimated when it launched the Pollinator Partnership Action Plan in 2016.

Conscious of the roles pollinators play in the food we eat and the products we buy, Villagers are helping conserve the tiny species that have enormous environmental and agricultural footprints.

It’s needed now more than ever.

Throughout the country, roadways, manicured lawns and landscapes of non-native plants that don’t support wildlife replaced native vegetation that pollinators depend on to survive, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated.

But people in The Villages have emerged as pollinator heroes. Many have transformed their home landscapes into habitats for butterflies, birds and non-aggressive bee species.

Groups like the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the world’s largest pollinator conservation nonprofit, took notice of how communities like The Villages can offset declining habitats for pollinators in the wild.

It also has the effect of making such communities more attractive to live in, said Phyllis Stiles, who founded the Xerces Society’s Bee City USA initiative. People can live in a densely-populated setting and still see wildlife, she said.

Pollinator Gardening

When fewer wild spaces exist, it’s possible for suburban and urban developments to fill the voids.

Clubs like The Villages Butterfly Gardens Club and The Villages’ chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society promote the use of pollinator-friendly plants to attract critical species.

Gardeners plant two types of plants to attract pollinators: Nectar plants for food and host plants for habitat and laying eggs.

The Fred Funk Butterfly Garden at the Lady Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, is the Butterfly Gardens Club’s community garden, named for the club’s late founder. One morning last year, gardeners worked along a row of nectar plants to chop off “deadhead” flowers that butterflies sucked all the nectar from.

Ann Marie Acacio, one of the Villagers working the garden that morning, said the reason she gardens for pollinators is simple: to help the planet.

“If there’s one thing we need more of, it’s pollination,” said Acacio, of the Village of Dunedin. “People don’t know how they can encourage the growth of pollinators just by putting one or two plants in their garden.”

But national groups are amplifying Villagers’ messages.

The Pollinator Partnership, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports protecting pollinator species and their habitats, credited suburban and urban gardens as a solution to the habitat problem.

“In some cases, cities and suburbs have more pollinator diversity than the surrounding landscape, and they can even house species that are absent from the wild, acting as urban conservation reserves,” said Victoria Wojcik, research director with the Pollinator Partnership.

Raising Monarch Caterpillars

One butterfly species stands out because of the peril it has faced in the past two decades: the monarch.

Villagers aid the species’ survival, planting the milkweeds they depend on to survive and raising the young in protective environments isolated from predators.

Monarchs matter to butterfly gardeners in The Villages because their population has declined in the past 20 years.

At wintering sites on the West Coast of the U.S., monarch population counts stood at 29,418 butterflies, according to the 2019 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. It’s down significantly from a peak of 1.2 million monarchs in 1997.

Concern also is mounting at migration sites in Mexico, where monarchs decreased in 2019-20. Federal officials are bound by a Dec. 15, 2020, deadline to determine whether monarchs warrant protection as an endangered or threatened species.

Butterfly Gardens Club members expressed concerns for years about such a listing because it would affect their ability to raise the monarchs.

Gardeners raise monarchs at their homes and the Funk garden, using screened-in protective cages in their early stages from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis. They’re released into the wild once the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.

But people may still preserve monarchs even if the butterflies are listed as an endangered species.

The Save Our Monarchs Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the monarch’s survival, offers one simple tip: Grow more milkweed.

As the fastest-growing metro market in the country over the past 10 years, The Villages plays a significant role in supporting pollinators like monarchs by incorporating a diversity of flowering plants in its landscapes, said Jaret Daniels, an entomology professor and butterfly researcher at the University of Florida.

“The choices we make in our landscapes really matter,” Daniels said. “Such landscapes and gardens also help connect people to nature, which is so important today.”

In the case of monarchs, that includes milkweed. Alycyn Culbertson, who serves on the Butterfly Gardens Club’s leadership team, said she grows a great deal of milkweed on her lanai. She gives seeds and plants away to increase the numbers of milkweed in the community.

Milkweed also can be a prize at the club’s meetings, and is a fixture in their community garden.

Attracting and Rescuing Bees

When considering the threats that bees face in the environment, you can’t blame them for their defensive nature.

Beekeepers reported colony losses at a nationwide average of 40% in 2017-18 and 2018-19, according to the Bee Informed Partnership. The figure marked a 7% greater loss over the 2016-17 season.

Florida beekeepers lost 40% of their colonies in 2018-19.

Experts blame the honey bee deaths on a variety of threats, including vampiric varroa mites that invade bee colonies and suck their blood, diseases like deformed wing virus, mass die-offs of worker bees known as colony collapse disorder, and powerful, systemic insecticides.

Villagers have long supported honey bees’ survival by buying honey from local beekeepers and consulting them for help with relocating beehives they find in neighborhoods.

Scott Irving, owner of Riverview Apiaries in Lake Panasoffkee, said he typically gets about 30 calls a year requesting beehive rescues in and around The Villages.

Irving said he’s conscious of the hazards bees are up against.

But Villagers play a part in reclaiming some of their lost habitat.

Native Plant Society members set up bee boxes, or “bee hotels,” in their home gardens that are similar in size and appearance to birdhouses.

Steve Turnipseed, a past president of The Villages chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, said he has bee boxes in his native plant garden in the Village of Buttonwood.

So does Carol Spears, of the Village Santiago.

Butterfly Gardens Club members also installed a bee box last year in the Funk garden to help bees nest and educate the public on their importance.

Minimizing or Eliminating Pesticides

Spray a pesticide and you might kill some of the bad bugs ruining your garden.

It also kills the good bugs.

Years after the White House acknowledged pesticides as a cause of pollinator declines, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took action in 2017 to manage products that are toxic to bees and other pollinators.

It involved new language on pesticide labels aimed at preventing bee losses, prohibiting the product’s use from a crop’s onset of flowering to the time flowering is complete, according to the EPA.

Irving urges people to avoid using systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which absorb into plants and can make the plant and its pollen toxic.

If people use pesticides, he said, they should avoid spraying during the day when bees are foraging.

Lisa Sanderson, master gardener coordinator with the University of Florida Sumter County Extension Office, thinks the guidance of master gardener volunteers from The Villages and surrounding communities has led some homeowners to consider using chemicals as a last resort and try other options first.

“We really don’t use a lot of products at all,” Sanderson said.

Also helpful is planting native plants, which support beneficial insects, including natural enemies of insect pests, said Kim Eierman, founder of the horticulture communication and consulting company EcoBeneficial.

Expanding Outreach

Sometimes, the first step to make a difference is educating people on how they may help.

Active participation in pollinator gardening goes a long way in supporting the species’ survival, said Wojcik, of the Pollinator Partnership.

“Communities that proclaim positive actions for pollinators are leaders in our efforts to transform the landscape for the better of pollinators,” she said.

Stiles said The Villages clubs’ ability to spread the word about pollinator gardening and pollinator conservation is “invaluable.”

“We love what we understand,” Stiles said. “Until you understand it, you can’t take care of it. Clubs like that start to make people aware, and people start to act when they become aware.”

In The Villages, awareness opportunities often get high visibility.

Culbertson, of the Village of Osceola Hills, gave a presentation last year on plants that attract butterflies to home landscapes as part of the Enrichment Academy Speaker Series.

During the event, she offered free milkweed seeds to the people in attendance.

Such outreach is important to getting the word out on how people can support conserving pollinators, especially monarchs, Culbertson said.

“I can see the light coming on for most of these people who likely never gave it a thought before,” she said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or