Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Little Things That Make a Big Difference

By Sunny Healey, Silver Creek Preserve manager

While learning about pollinators, their importance and how we can help them, I thought of what John Muir said: “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world”. For example, from a leading cacao expert Allen Young: “A tiny fly no bigger than the head of a pin is responsible for the world's supply of chocolate.” The leaf-cutting bee (Megachile rotundata) is a solitary bee that is essential to the production of alfalfa, which contributes to the production of milk chocolate by feeding dairy cows.  

The work of pollinators is quite amazing, providing three quarters of our staple crops; 80 percent of flowering plants in the world require pollinators. Last year with the help of the WOW students from Wood River Middle School, we planted over 100 milkweed seedlings for Monarch butterflies and made hundreds of native wildflower seed bombs.  Helping pollinators is fun and serious business. The work of pollinators has been valued at over $90 billion a year, assuming we could do the job at all. 

Bee © Sunny Healey

A simple way to help pollinators is by doing nothing.  By leaving areas of bare soil, dead leaves, and brush piles and postponing spring clean-up, you are providing important overwintering shelter to butterflies, and ground nesting bees.  Many insects and birds migrate but the tiger swallowtail winters in its chrysalis, and anglewing butterflies and tortoiseshell butterflies overwinter as adults.  

Also, not spraying pesticides helps native pollinators.  We not only protect pollinators by refraining from using pesticides, but we protect natural predators like green lacewings which prey on mealybugs, psyllids, thrips, mites, whiteflies.  Leafhoppers and ladybugs, eat aphids at a rate of 5000/year. 

If you are feeling a little more ambitious, you can plant a native flower.  You could plant a few, or even an entire butterfly garden. We planted milkweed because the Monarch caterpillar depends on the plant. Widespread use of herbicides has greatly reduced the availability of milkweed across the country.  While Monarch butterflies prefer milkweed, they can get nectar from other flowers.  This is not the case for the caterpillar that relies solely on the milkweed plant for survival. 

The first few generations of Monarchs journey from Mexico to North America, each living about 3-4 months.  The fourth generation lives twice as long and flies all the way back to where the first one emerged in the forests of Michoacán, sometimes a journey of 3000 miles!  

Some other plants for a butterfly garden in Idaho: Scarlet’s globemallow attracts the common checkered skipper, chokecherry for the two-tailed swallowtail and violets for the great spangled fritillary. Consider incorporating plants such as broccoli or rose into your garden to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, which prey on aphids. 

By planting an array of colors and different sizes of flowers or diverse variety of crops, you can help provide for pollinators throughout the season.  Spring and fall are especially important: Drummond’s milkvetch and yellow bee plant for early spring and Indian paintbrush and rabbitbrush for late summer and fall. 
Flowers © Sunny Healey

Farmers know the value of pollination.  Last spring and summer we had a workshop to learn about pollinators and visited a local farm that is working on increasing pollinator habitat. This includes site preparation, weed and pest control, crop diversity, installing buffer zones with diversity of plant structure, and protecting water sources.  Some native bees are only able to fly 300ft before needing to refuel, so leaving native plant areas in corners or along fence lines and roads help provides forage and habitat corridors. This edge habitat can pollinate an entire crop. 

The Natural Resource Conservation Service via the USDA Farm Bill, The Xerces Society, The Nature Conservancy, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, the Pollinator Partnership and many others are all working to help pollinators.  There are free planting guides available and a lot of interesting, fun things to learn about the microcosms and world of pollinators and beneficial insects.  

 To find out more about the Monarch butterfly, visit this page.

With spring just around the corner it’s time to start thinking about what we’re going to plant in our own gardens! 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Trip to the Sea

By Lou Lunte, deputy state director

My daughters, wife and I get out often enjoying the bounty of what Idaho offers; from its legendary rivers and lakes, to its canyons, mountains and deserts.  Even with all that, we find ourselves drawn to the ocean once a year, which takes us away from Idaho for a trip to the Oregon or northern California coast.  

On these journeys to the coast my daughters love walking the beach, looking for shells and peering into the tidal pools.  Yet invariably, sometime during the trip comes their request – why can’t we go to the “warm ocean”.  My wife’s and my inadequate answer had always been – maybe someday.  Well, that someday finally came.

A few botched flights, long layovers and a night in Miami and we were finally on the final flight to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.  With the anti-motion sickness patch affixed behind my ear, I watched my daughters gaze out the airplane window at the ocean quickly coming up to the plane.  Suddenly we had landed and our two week adventure with the “warm ocean” had begun.

Landing in the Virgin Islands © Lou Lunte

A taxi cab transported us on the narrow, windy roads to the dock were we met my sister and her husband with whom we’d be spending the next two weeks.  Years ago they figured out they preferred to winter in the Caribbean.  As we loaded our small bags – “swimsuits and t-shirts is all you’ll need”, my sister had advised – onto their 38’ catamaran sail boat we began to sense what our life would be like for the next few weeks.

The first night we all slept well on the boat; thankfully the patch was working for me.  In the morning we launched the catamaran with a warm breeze in our faces and the sun on our shoulders.  A few hours later we were at another island tied up to a mooring buoy in a small bay ready to try our first snorkel.  Anxious and excited we sorted and fitted fins, masks and snorkels.   It was time to take the dingy ashore and get our first look at the undersea world.  Wow!  It was absolutely amazing.  

A whole new world opened up before our eyes – creatures and colors we had only seen on screens or pages.  My daughters, both good swimmers, were completely at ease within 10 minutes.  They quickly learned to dive down and clear their snorkel when they surfaced.  We were hooked.

Snorkeling in the "warm waters"© Lou Lunte
For the next two weeks we lived on “island time”, digitally disconnected and with no need to track time.  When the winds were good we’d sail from island to island, first in the US Virgin Islands and then the British Virgin Islands.  Guided by my sister we explored amazing bays and reefs, spending lots of time in the water, on the white sand beaches and occasionally visiting the local cafĂ©/bar.

We saw colorful underwater “Christmas trees” and beautiful coral; we swam with the spotted rays and sea turtles.  We watched in amazement as a four foot barracuda chased and caught a food fish.  Every day and every snorkel brought something new and spectacular.

Coral © Lou Lunte

Mostly we went where the water was blue and the reefs were alive with color.  Yet, even in paradise it was unavoidable that we also saw reefs that were bleaching or smoothed in silt from sediment runoff.  We saw anchor scars in broken corals and we witnessed a conch grave yard – thousands of shells piled on top of each other.  It made us realize that whether in the Caribbean or in Idaho, we must take care of those things we value or they will be lost.

As we flew home to Boise feeling more relaxed and mellow than we had in ages, we all agreed that we should not wait so long to make our next visit to the “warm ocean”. And yet, it was still wonderful to come home to Idaho.
Sunset © Lou Lunte