Groups help bee and butterfly populations with flowers, grass

BURLINGTON — In a backyard vegetable garden at a Burlington middle school, students made sure to plant flowers like deep pink sweet william, a bushy sage plant with purple blossoms and zinnias, and marigolds that will bloom this summer.

They've also left a section unplanted where grass and wildflowers can grow unmowed, in an effort to help bees and other pollinators that have been sharply declining in population.

Hunt Middle School is one of more than 100 schools, businesses and individuals in the state helping to protect pollinators by planting flowers and letting grass grow long. An estimated 30 acres has been designated since the Wild for Pollinators initiative was launched in Vermont late last year by national nonprofit, the Vermont Community Garden Network and the Intervale Center.

It's all linked to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a national effort to create pollinator-friendly landscapes.

More than a third of the world's food crops depend on pollination by insects and other animals, according to the Wild for Pollinators website.

But the populations of bees and butterflies have been declining for more than a decade due to parasites, habitat loss, pesticides, disease, poor nutrition and climate change. In the Northeast, more than a one-quarter of the bumblebee species are threatened or have disappeared, the website says.

The Vermont initiative was started by Maree Gaetani, of, who said she wanted an easy way for people to make a difference for pollinators and saw a lot of opportunity in manicured lawns that could be left wild, seeded with flowers or not.

"What better way to get people of all ages asking and curious when they see a messy lawn and start observing bees and butterflies, knowing that their effort made a difference," she said.

The simple strategy of not mowing has multiple benefits, said Charles Nicholson, researcher at the University of Vermont, who studies the benefits of native bees both in Vermont and nationally.

It's "bringing nature home," said Nicholson.

"The areas around your house or your school or your place of business don't have to be a plain sea of green like a mowed lawn," he added. "That they can be kind of small habitats in and of themselves," he said.

At Hunt Middle School and Burlington High School, many vegetable and herb plants are left to flower and go to seed, said Christine Gall, who manages the schools' production gardens.

"We had a lot of fennel out here that we just like totally let and it got everywhere," Gall said. "It was incredible how many bees there were."


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