Bees, butterflies welcome here

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey The Department of Natural Resource’s Regional Ecologist Megan Benage who represented the DNR on the Pollinator Park stands next to the park’s sign.

NEW ULM — A little over a year after being sown, the New Ulm Pollinator Park is going strong but has some room for improvement.

To help out, volunteers joined Regional Ecologist Megan Benage with the Department of Natural Resources to weed out some invasive grasses Saturday, July 15.

“Basically (the park) all came to be really through the efforts of Deb Steinberg, who is a local citizen,” Benage said. “She is a member of the garden club here in New Ulm and she was looking for an opportunity for her preschoolers to have a place where they could do some outdoor learning.”

In June 2016 an estimated 70 volunteers planted seedlings of native, pollinator-friendly plants. This year nonnative plants like smooth brome have grown up between the natives, so more volunteers were needed to weed them out.

Once native plants fill-out the garden-like park at 2250 N. Broadway St. they should need virtually no maintenance.

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey This is purple prairie flower, one of the many kinds of native flowers planted in the pollinator park.

The park was planted in part as a response to decreasing pollinator populations. Steinberg spearheaded the project after looking for a place to release monarch butterflies for her preschool class.

While monarchs are one of what Benage called “flagship pollinators” at the park, they are far from the only one.

Benage described four major pollinator groups: bees and wasps, butterflies and moths, beetles and even flies.

Of all pollinators the bee is probably the most important. Bees are exceptional pollinators because they practice flower constancy.

“They pollinate the same species of flower at the same time, so they are actually pollinating,” Benage said. “Whereas if you are a butterfly or beetle or something else you are kind of a misguided pollinator because you are just lumbering around to lots of different species.”

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Butterfly milkweed is one of three kinds of milkweed that are critically important for monarch butterflies.

By remaining constant, the bees carry pollen that every plant they visit can use, unlike other pollinators who will seek nectar from any plant.

“So if I am a bee, I go from bee balm to bee balm to bee balm to bee balm when their pollen and nectar are at the peak and then I switch,” Benage said.

Though it would seem more efficient to plant only one species to avoid other pollinators from delivering useless pollen, that would not sustain the insects.

“The biggest key with doing a planting like this is to make sure you get diversity,” Benage said. “So you have plants that bloom early, mid and late (growing season) — so the whole season long, because if you do not have that the pollinators are starving.”

Beyond that, there is a demand for plants that lack flowers. Pollinators need a wide diversity of native grasses, Benage said.

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey These yellow flowers called birdsfoot corriopsis are named after the three-pronged leaves along the stem that look like a bird’s foot.

Primarily, grasses are used as a shelter for immature pollinators. One example would be milkweed.

Milkweed does flower, so it’s not the best example, but monarch butterflies’ young only live on that plant. The park has three kinds: butterfly, swamp and common.

Part of why the park needs as much maintenance as it has, is its manicured style. Not all of it looks like a garden; however, about half the park is managed as a native habitat.

The DNR uses controlled burns to restore the lower part back to prairie, for two reasons Benage said.

“Most of our pollinators rely on prairie, they need those open landscapes because there tend to be more flowers,” Benage said.

The other reason is the region was historically prairie. Before New Ulm sprang up, fairly regular wildfires would disturb the landscape and clear trees.

Now those regular disturbances cannot happen because, as Benage put it, letting a wildfire burn freely near a community is frowned upon.

“Now we have to kind of bring that disturbance back in, in less of a natural way and more of a managed way,” Benage said.

That way develops pockets of prairie in the area, bringing closer the past environment and aiding the insects that pollinate our food.