For years, Donna Merrill felt helpless about how to save butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators threatened by pesticides and habitat loss. What could one person really accomplish? Then, four years ago, Merrill, who is the executive director of the Wilton Land Conservation Trust, read about a global plan to connect protected conservation land with pollinator-friendly trees, shrubs and perennials, literally creating pollinator pathways. Private citizens, municipalities and businesses could all be part of the solution by agreeing to plant native species and avoid pesticides. This would provide migrating pollinators a place to rest, feed and reproduce.
Generations of regionalization advocates couldn’t permeate Connecticut’s 169-town mindset, but butterflies, hummingbirds and bees broke down local barriers in a few short years. Today, conservationists, gardeners and land trust members are working across town and state lines to create Pollinator Pathways, connecting fragmented landscapes and providing protected habitats for pollinators. The concept began in Fairfield County and has spread to 35 communities in Connecticut and New York.
“We can’t connect the landscape until we connect the people, and the Pollinator Pathway has done that,” says Mary Ellen Lemay, facilitator for the Hudson to Housatonic Regional Conservation Partnership. “Each town is a stepping stone in the effort to heal and connect our land by increasing biodiversity, starting with some of the smallest and most important creatures that live among us.”
But the pathways are doing more than forging corridors for insects to find food and reproduce. “It’s connecting people who are working on conservation issues like water and open space across town lines and across state lines,” says Louise Washer, who is the executive director of the Norwalk River Watershed Association. The pathways have extended from Fairfield County to New Haven and Hartford counties and Westchester and Putnam counties in New York.
The Pollinator Pathway program started in Washington state, where designer Sarah Bergman first envisioned the global, long-term means of connecting privately owned urban land and municipal spaces to national parks. To change the course of pollinator decline caused in part by climate change, she says, native plants have to be planted and preserved for generations.
“We only have this really short window of time to get this done,” Bergman says. “This is a project about global ecology.”
More than a million migrating birds fly over southwestern Connecticut annually, says Patrick Comins, executive director of Connecticut Audubon Society. After flying through the night, migrating birds are looking for a place to rest, eat and sleep before continuing their migration. They can tell from the air where they’re going to find an inviting breakfast buffet. On his half-acre yard in Meriden, Comins says, he has seen more than 120 bird species stopping by to feast in his native plant-rich, pesticide-free property.
Native plants benefit native insects, providing a host plant for insects to eat and reproduce. Many pollinators can’t fly more than a half-mile, so they need a safe place to refuel and rest as they migrate.
Migrating birds and insects could have access to healthy breeding and wintering habitats, but if they don’t have that chain of rest stops on the migratory highway, Comins says, “they’re not going to make it.”
The decline of European honeybees in recent years may have received a lot of buzz, but crops and flowers rely on hundreds of species of native bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths for survival — 87 percent of plant species need pollinators, says Kimberly Stoner, an entomologist with the New Haven-based Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
“I can see why people feel hopeless and throw up their hands,” says Stoner, who travels the state talking about bees and how to protect them. “I agree with the Pollinator Pathway people. This is something that is doable and will save some important biodiversity on the level of your town and region.”
A grassroots effort, the Pollinator Pathway has spread from town to town with people from land trusts, garden clubs, conservation commissions and watershed associations working with nature centers, municipalities, schools, Scout troops and businesses.
“Wildlife doesn’t know boundaries,” Merrill says. Cities and towns in the state are largely built out, and open space has been protected in a series of unconnected pockets. Conservation groups strive to link contiguous spaces, but that still leaves gaps between diverse ecosystems.
Providing habitat for pollinators has turned out to have a second benefit: water conservation. Once native trees, shrubs and perennials are established (about two weeks after planting), they don’t need watering or fertilizing. As people along the Pollinator Pathway have replaced grass and ornamental plants with natives, they have reduced their watering needs. (In the summer, homes with extensive landscapes devote up to 70 percent of water consumption to watering lawns and gardens, according to Aquarion Water Co., a part of Eversource which serves more than 50 municipalities in the state.)
“Runoff from lawns is the main source of pollution in [Long Island] Sound and the Naugatuck River,” she adds. “For me, the Pollinator Pathway is gigantically about protecting water.”
People who met from the Pathway effort have worked together on other environmental efforts as well. Some began attending each other’s public hearings and meetings to oppose a water company plan to address a five-year drought by tapping a well and withdrawing 1 million gallons a day, Washer says. Pollinator Pathway advocates from several towns made the case that shrinking lawns in favor of native plantings would cut the demand for water, and the water company reconsidered, she says.
“I see this as larger than habitat restoration and greenway building. People are really worried about the environment and water quality and the Sound and all the extinctions looming, and now we’re partners in all this,” Washer says. “Why were we never talking to each other? I wasn’t even working closely with the land trusts in my seven towns. I didn’t have a natural way to engage. So, the Pollinator Pathway has provided that.”
“Pollinator conservation is more popular across political lines than many other forms of conservation because people see it relating to food,” Stoner notes. “It has not been subject to a lot of political polarization like many other forms of conservation.”
The biggest challenge leaders face is changing the “perfect green lawn” aesthetic. The monoculture lawn may do nothing to help pollinators and require daily watering, but people — especially men — love their “perfect lawn,” Washer says. Native plantings not only attract wildlife and feed pollinators, but they require far less maintenance, expense and water than a weed-free lawn.
“It looks kind of uninformed and stupid to have a lawn that looks like a golf course,” Washer says. “If you have no clover or dandelions, your lawn is a desert. I’m hoping we’re going to change the aesthetic.”
Some communities, such as Darien and New Haven, are forging a pollinator-friendly habitat across the entire community. For 20 years, New Haven has created “urban oases” in about a dozen city parks, and the Urban Resource Initiative has been planting trees across the city, says Doreen Abubakar, vice president of the Elm City Parks Conservancy. Her organization is coordinating with all the city’s other groups working on greening the city with the goal of planting natives citywide.
Abubakar is bringing native plantings to distressed neighborhoods to not only help the pollinators, but to bring the joy of seeing butterflies and birds visiting pollinator gardens. “My part in this is really connecting the city to nature,” she says.
Meanwhile, Southington resident Shari Guarino says her first thought when learning about the pathway was, “I was born to do this.” She’s been working to remove invasive plants along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, and natives make an ideal replacement. A master gardener who is a member of her town’s conservation commission and land trust, she’s bringing together groups to plant natives in public spaces like the library and community center, as well as places the public visits such as banks, churches and malls.
“My husband is an alternate on [the] Planning and Zoning [board,] and nobody talks to anybody else. This will get us talking to each other. It can’t be a bad thing,” Guarino says. “We can’t do much as individuals, but we can do a little bit more working together. It gets you talking, town to town, group to group.”
How local crusaders joined forces to sprout a budding network spanning dozens of towns
Early adopters have taken a variety of routes to help the Pollinator Pathway program take root and spread.
In some towns, master gardeners and watershed leaders have presented talks on invasive species and offered native plants as an alternative to invasive plant infestations. At forums, garden club members and master gardeners have volunteered to visit people’s homes to identify invasive plant species and suggest potential native plants to replace them. To keep costs down and boost convenience, garden club members have sold native plants at their annual plant sales.
Other pathway organizers have received grants from nonprofit foundations, local service clubs or businesses, using the funds to buy native plants that volunteers then work to plant. Some of the bigger corporations in Fairfield County have offered teams of volunteers to plant the natives for the pathways, says Donna Merrill, with the Wilton Land Conservation Trust.
To map out the pathways, conservation leaders looked at existing preserved land and overlaid a map identifying the tracts of the highest conservation value. They drew a pathway connecting the existing protected forest, state park or conservation land across town lines to preserved space in another community.
Leaders identified the owners of the land along the pathway through the local assessors’ offices and contacted each owner, inviting them to a forum to learn about pollinators. Leaders asked those attending the meeting to plant at least one native tree, shrub or perennial on their property and forgo pesticides. Volunteers also knocked on doors at homes along the pathway, handing out Pollinator Pathway brochures and asking homeowners to join.
“It’s all about landowner engagement, so they understand what they do on their property makes a difference,” Merrill says.
Several towns enlisted volunteers to plant public demonstration gardens on town property so residents could see for themselves that planting for pollinators does not put people at increased risk for bee stings. Organizers created 6½-inch metal signs announcing that the land is on the Pollinator Pathway, helping to raise awareness and spread the word. It’s the pollinator-friendly alternative to the signs put on yards warning of pesticide applications.
For those who are interested in joining the Pollinator Pathway, founder Sarah Bergman’s website, pollinatorpathways.com, provides a tool kit and information. Pollinator-pathway.org also includes tips for creating pathways and marketing information such as downloadable brochures, a logo and orderable signs.
Before a sustainable stop along the Pollinator Pathway can be created, invasive plants must be defeated
Invasive plants crowd out native plants because they have no natural competitors. While some provide a pollen source for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, they don’t serve native pollinators as a place to live and raise their young the way native plants do, according to the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group.
Milkweed, for instance, is critical to the viability of the monarch butterfly population. It may have “weed” in its name, but it is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. As milkweed has disappeared from roadsides and fields due to widespread use of herbicide, monarchs have been in steep decline. Nor are monarchs the only insects to rely on a single host plant for survival. (The good news for the monarchs and other insects is that people across the state are part of a national movement to plant milkweed.)
Plant diversity is vital because the more diverse a habitat’s plants, animals and insects, the healthier the habitat. It will be able to more successfully fend off disease and predators while also providing sources of food and shelter.
Invasive trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses invade natural areas such as riverbanks, woodlands and fields, displacing native plants and upsetting the ecological balance of these important wildlife habitats. Invasive plants are harmful to the environment because they have no natural checks and balances to stop their spread.
Japanese barberry, ubiquitous in landscape plantings because it is deer-resistant and hardy, contributes to the state’s tick problem. Small rodents, such as chipmunks and mice, carry the Lyme disease-infected blacklegged ticks and hide under the shrubs to avoid predators. Aggressive, shade-tolerant garlic mustard plants, which spread through forest understories, release a chemical into the soil that discourages other seeds from germinating, making it hard to eradicate.
Japanese knotweed is so difficult to remove that homes in the United Kingdom cannot be sold if the plant is on the property. The Oriental bittersweet vine spreads easily by birds eating the orange berries and through its prolific root system. Multiflora rose, phragmites, bush honeysuckle and burning bush are among the most ubiquitous invasives in Connecticut.
Land trusts, garden clubs and others are organizing teams of volunteers to remove invasive plants and replace them with natives.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group published a booklet, Alternatives for Invasive Ornamental Plant Species and the CIPWG site includes links to the Invasive Plant app (cipwg.uconn.edu/invasive-mobile-apps). For a complete list of invasive plants in Connecticut, including photos, go to cipwg.uconn.edu/invasive_plant_list.
Pollinator Pathway towns
After starting in Fairfield County, the effort has steadily spread to surrounding towns and counties. Here’s a look at where things stand as of this summer.
Towns with established pollinator pathways: Bridgeport, Brookfield, Darien, Durham, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Guilford, New Canaan, New Haven, Newtown, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Stamford, Wallingford, West Haven, Weston, Westport, Wilton
Towns with pathways in the works: Berlin, Bethel, Branford, Canton, Danbury, Essex, Farmington, Glastonbury, Hamden, Kent, Mansfield, Monroe, New Fairfield, North Haven, Norwich, Old Greenwich, Riverside, Sherman, Simsbury, Southington, Southport, Stratford, Trumbull
How to help pollinators
Here are some quick tips for your property from the folks behind the Pollinator Pathway movement.
- Plant a window box, a container or garden with pollinator plants.
- Provide a source of clean water.
- Reduce your lawn area by replacing it with native flowers, shrubs or trees.
- Leave lawn clippings on the grass as fertilizer rather than adding chemicals.
- Consider the use of slow-release organic fertilizers or none at all.
- Plant native plants, which attract beneficial insects that get rid of pests.
- Don’t use chemical pesticides and herbicides that can be harmful to pollinators, your family and pets.