Powering Our Pollinators
Contributed by Alicia Kroll
Alicia has been passionate about protecting the environment since childhood, growing up exploring many state and local parks. She studied Zoology at the University of Minnesota-Mankato, and worked in the animal care field for 10 years. Alicia can now be found ensuring billing accuracy as a Member Account Analyst at ECE. She is excited to use her knowledge of wildlife conservation to create pollinator-friendly landscapes at ECE. She also volunteers at Wild Paws Midwest Animal Sanctuary, which focuses on rescuing native, carnivore species displaced from the wild.
January 14, 2020
In my yard is a late-blooming sedum plant that the bees just love. Many times as we pulled into the driveway this fall, my boys would yell out, “Mom, look at all the bees!” It was so fun to watch the bees work. Then one chilly day, they were just gone. It made me wonder: where do bees go in winter?
- Bumble bees: In the fall, female worker bees and male drones die, leaving only the queen to hibernate. She typically burrows in a north-facing bank with well-drained soil, can hibernate for up to nine months, and can survive below-zero soil temperatures.
- Solitary bees: Most solitary bees have an annual life cycle. Females gather pollen and nectar for the nest where they lay their eggs. The nest is sealed for winter; as the eggs hatch, baby bees feed on the pollen and nectar, growing into young bees who emerge in the spring. Other species spend the winter as larvae and develop into adults over spring.
- Honey bees: Rather than hibernating, honey bees cluster together and sort of “shiver” to generate heat. The worker bees circulate through the cluster around the queen, keeping the hive a balmy 92 degrees. The hive must have large stores of honey to recoup their energy loss.
It’s not just bees that find unique ways to survive our brutal winters. Moths, butterflies, bats and birds all have special adaptions for the changing seasons.
- Hibernation or Torpor: Torpor is a short-term drop in body temperature during the day that slows the metabolism to conserve energy. Hibernation is simply an extended period of torpor. Many species of bats utilize this adaptation to survive the long winter.
- Migration: The most notable pollinator species that migrate are the monarch butterfly and the hummingbird. Rather than trying to survive here, they fly hundreds or thousands of miles to warmer climates.
- Supercool: Some insects can supercool their bodies by making chemicals similar to antifreeze, which prevent ice from forming within their bodies.
- Freeze: Instead of preventing themselves from freezing, some insects allow their bodies to freeze. By using specialized proteins, their bodies are not damaged. The woolly bear caterpillar uses this freezing strategy.
It’s truly amazing that just under the leaf litter or in the hollow of a log, millions of insects are waiting for that first spring day when they will emerge and start their cycles all over again.
So, which are you—a migrator or hibernator?
December 13, 2019
‘Tis the season for cozy fires, hot chocolate and festivities with family and friends. It’s also the time of year when we reflect on the blessings in our lives. There are many things I am thankful for: a loving family, a happy home, and of course pollinators!
As I’ve said before, pollinators and their plant counterparts play a major role in our everyday lives, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. This year, give back to your pollinators (and your community) by shopping locally. There are many organic farms in our service territory where you can find great gifts for your loved ones. Here are just a few:
Sapsucker Farms, Mora, MN
Find all-organic produce, honey, maple syrup and hard cider.
Treasured Haven Farm, Rush City, MN
Enroll in Community Supported Agriculture, visit their sunflower fields or sign up for a trail run.
Medicine Creek Farm, Finlayson, MN
Find pastured pork and 100% grass-fed beef.
Each of the above businesses are doing their part to protect pollinators by planting native prairies, avoiding harmful pesticides and promoting the benefits of pollinators to visitors. Is there anything better than a plate of homemade pancakes drizzled with pure maple syrup? Yum!
If shopping isn’t really your thing, try the fun-for-all gift of exploration!
- Grab a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a pass to our great state parks and see what nature has to offer.
- Enjoy a day of natural beauty at The Arboretum and visit the Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center.
- Walk among the butterflies at The Conservatory at Como Park and Zoo and learn what to plant to attract them.
This season, blend new traditions with the old and help pollinators while you’re at it. Just remember, without pollinators there would be no pumpkin pie! I hope you all have a safe and happy holiday season.
November 15, 2019
On the Farm: Cultivating Pollinator-Friendly Practices
Living in a rural area, it is likely that you know a farmer or own a farm yourself. Farmers are the backbone of America and without them our current way of life would vanish. Without pollinators doing their job, farmers would suffer. Native bees pollinate apples, cherries, squash, watermelon, cranberries, tomatoes and raspberries far more effectively than honey bees.
We desperately need pollinators, yet many agricultural landscapes today lack enough habitat to support native pollinators. With a little time and effort, farmers can improve habitat on their land while simultaneously increasing their yields and profits. Here are a few examples of what to do:
- Recognize the native bees and habitat that already exist on the farm. Locate nests and identify plants that support insects.
- Adapt existing practices to avoid causing harm to the bees. Minimize pesticide drift, create buffer zones around crops, and reduce the practice of fencerow to fencerow farming.
- Create new habitat around the farm. Utilize field edges, drainage ditches, powerline rights-of-ways or road edges to add habitat.
The cost of creating habitat can seem out of reach for many farmers. Thankfully, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency will provide financial assistance to support conservation efforts for pollinators and other wildlife on agricultural land. They also offer free technical assistance to help develop conservation plans.
If you are a farmer and would like to know more about what pollinators can do for your bottom line, visit xerces.org. Here you will find guidelines for providing native bee habitat on your farm; you can also download a pollinator habitat assessment to create a conservation plan. Let’s work together to cultivate pollinator-friendly practices.
October 22, 2019
For the birds
Ahh, fall—my favorite season. Of course, the colors are beautiful, but fall is also migration time for birds. I love hearing the white-throated sparrow, my favorite songbird, because it’s an echo of my childhood spent fishing in the Northwoods.
Recent studies show songbird populations are rapidly declining and there may be 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than in 1970. That is astonishing, especially since over 50 million Americans call bird-watching a hobby.
Just like pollinators, planting native vegetation is key to increasing bird populations. The secret to successfully planting for birds and insects? Native variety. Ornamental plants simply don’t provide the right amount of nutrition or habitat to sustain a healthy ecosystem, so always choose a nice variety of native species to plant.
- Native trees like oak and birch support hundreds of different species of caterpillars, which are used as a high protein food source for young nestlings. If you plan to plant trees, visit us at eastcentralenergy.com for safe planting tips.
- Shrubs such as chokecherry and serviceberry provide highly nutritious fruits prized by cardinals, grosbeaks and tanagers.
- Forbs in the daisy family such as asters, thistles and sunflowers produce small seeds favored by finches.
- Thickets and tall grass provide nesting habitat, shelter from harsh weather, and foraging grounds where sparrows, warblers and chickadees can hunt for insects.
Remember, when we plant non-native species, we are essentially replacing our welcome mat with a “no admittance” sign for birds and insects.
Other things you can do to help our songbird populations include:
- Make windows safer. Up to 1 billion birds are killed each year colliding with glass. Curtains, decals and screens can all help prevent collisions.
- Keep cats indoors. Roughly 2.6 billion birds die each year when they are caught by cats.
- Participate in citizen science. Collect and share data of our natural world to help protect it.
- Help a child discover birds. Visit our state and national parks equipped with a field guide and let the bird-watching begin.
Carving out a little piece of property for birds, insects and other animals is attainable no matter where you live. You don’t have to give up your entire yard, but we can all use our gardens and rights-of-ways to bridge the gap. Birds of a feather flock together—and together we can improve our local ecosystems.
August 13, 2019
Powering our Pollinators: United We Plant
There are many things to see while out for a drive. Personally, I love to check
out the plants sprouting in ditches and under powerlines. I’ve been pleased to
see lots of milkweed and other flowering plants growing in abundance.
It’s not just happenstance that they’re growing, either.
A nationwide effort is currently underway to promote milkweed and flowering plants. Energy, utility and transportation sectors have been performing conservation measures in their rights-of-ways. The Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) was developed through a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service (USFWS), and more than 40 parties from the energy and transportation sectors. ECE is proud to be one of those partners, as we understand that organizations must unite to have the greatest impact possible.
You may have heard the monarch is currently under review by the USFWS for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. Because so many organizations are interested in helping the monarch population rebound, the potential listing of the monarch has been pushed back from July 2019 to December 2020. This is great news! Now scientists will have the opportunity to see our work in action.
Some of the conservation measures listed in the CCAA are things your co-op has been doing for many years, as well as a few we have just started. These include:
Targeted herbicide application, which helps control undesirable vegetation and restore native plant communities
Conservation mowing that promotes habitat and minimizes impacts on monarch breeding and migration
Seeding and planting to restore and create habitat
Brush removal to remove woody plants (including those listed as invasive or a noxious weed) to promote suitable habitat
Each of these conservation measures addresses key threats to habitat loss and degradation to the monarch. The best part? By increasing beneficial monarch habitat, we are also increasing habitat for other pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee—which is currently listed as endangered.
We are honored to be part of this first-ever nationwide conservation agreement. It is a true display of ECE’s environmental stewardship. It also supports the seventh cooperative principle: concern for community. We sincerely thank everyone out there who is doing their part (even if it’s just one flower pot) because you are helping save such an iconic species. Until next time, remember to plant it forward.
July 24, 2019
Wild Bees: Small but Mighty
Are you afraid of bees? Their sharp stingers, loud buzz, and aggressive coloring used to scare me, but after starting this pollinator project, I learned that most bees are fairly docile. They usually only sting as a last defense if injured or threatened. This knowledge has helped me overcome my fear, and now I enjoy taking close-up pictures for a few citizen science apps I downloaded.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, Minnesota is home to over 400 species of bees. Bumble bees and honey bees represent only about 2% of all bee species. Here are some more fun facts:
- Globally, there are over 20,000 different species of bees.
- Only 5% are social; the remaining 95% are completely solitary.
- Depending on the species, solitary bees build their nests in old logs or trees, dig tunnels in the ground, or use hollow stems.
- Across all species, only female bees can sting, and only the honey bee is likely to die after stinging a human.
The bees knees of pollination
All bees are important pollinators. Honey bees were brought to the U.S. in the 1600s and are used primarily for commercial purposes. Native bees, like bumble bees, are responsible for pollinating most of the world’s flowering plants (including your garden plants). Many native bees have special adaptations that make them better at pollinating than honey bees. For example, bumble bees vibrate the flower and loosen the pollen, which is great for tomato and pepper plants.
Want to attract wild bees to your yard or garden?
There are two requirements every bee needs: food and shelter. Follow these tips and your plants will be well-pollinated:
- Plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the year.
- Make sure you have bare patches of dry, sandy soil for burrowing bees.
- Build or purchase a bee house for cavity-nesting bees.
- Convert your lawn into a flowering bee lawn (consult local ordinances first).
With knowledge comes power. Hopefully this post has helped alleviate any fears you may have been harboring. Get out there, plant some flowers, and just watch the magic of the bee! If you are interested in learning more about native bees, building bee houses or joining a citizen science project, visit https://www.beelab.umn.edu/.
June 13, 2019
Let's celebrate! National Pollinator Week is June 17-21
Every dog may have his day, but in June pollinators have a whole week! The entire country is celebrating the positive effects pollinators have on our lives. There are many easy ways to celebrate at home, including:
- Plant habitat in your backyard using native plants
- Host a pollinator planting day at your school, office or local park
- Build native bee houses
- Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (MPGC)
- Join a social media campaign
- Become a citizen scientist
If you want to start small, stop into one of our offices and grab a free packet of native seed—one per member household. You can plant them this fall, just before frost, and have beautiful native flowers by next summer.
Doubling our efforts
Here at ECE, we are celebrating with an exciting announcement! In addition to the 2.5 acres in Superior, we will also be converting 2.4 acres of turf grass to pollinator-friendly habitat at our Braham Headquarters location. Minnesota Native Landscapes, a certified ecological restoration company, will be starting work this summer.
Don’t wait to ‘bee’ the change
There is no better time than the present to get involved. Pollinator.org is a great source of inspiration. There, you will find instructions for bee houses, learn how to register your garden for the MPGC, graphics to share on social media, as well as recommended apps to become a citizen scientist.
Early last week I saw my first monarch floating by. To me, they are a beacon of summer, letting us know that warm days are just ahead. I have learned so much about these amazing creatures since starting this journey a year ago. It’s inspiring that so many here at ECE are willing to jump right in and do what it takes to help save our pollinators.
Be sure to let us know on Facebook or Twitter what you are up to for Pollinator Week. Next time, we will explore the wild world of Minnesota’s native bees.
May 16, 2019
A Ray of Hope
Renewable energy and the plight of pollinators are both pretty big deals right now. While not everyone agrees on how much energy should come from renewables like solar, they generally do agree on what to plant under solar arrays: pollinator habitat.
Prior to 2016, you typically would have found rock or turf grass under a solar array in Minnesota. That all changed when the Pollinator Friendly Solar Act was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in May of that year. This was truly a win-win for everyone. Here are just a few benefits of planting for pollinators beneath solar arrays:
- Provides high-quality habitat for birds, pollinators and other small wildlife.
- Reduces stormwater runoff and erosion.
- Restores important prairie ecosystems.
- Boosts crop yields in nearby fields.
- Reduces vegetation maintenance costs.
- Increases panel efficiency.
According to a new study released by MN Solar Pathways, solar projects generally require about 7 acres of land per megawatt of energy production. Minnesota has roughly 7,100 acres of solar projects installed. And while that only represents a small fraction of land in the state, it is still a huge step forward for pollinators.
The state’s current goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025 can only be good news for pollinators. We recently announced that Great River Energy will build and buy power from a solar array in Cambridge. As you can guess, pollinator habitat will be incorporated into the roughly 15-acre site.
Planting for pollinators beneath and around a solar array is just one example of a creative solution to an immense problem. It’s also inspiring to see how technology can positively impact the environment. Thanks for tuning in. Next time we will dive into Pollinator Week and how you can get involved.
April 1, 2019
Cooperation is key
We’ve highlighted just how important it is for many sectors to be involved in helping pollinators.
- Individuals can plant home gardens.
- Businesses can convert campus turf grass to pollinator-friendly habitat.
- Government agencies can protect and promote pollinator populations by changing policies.
What it all comes down to is cooperation. Being a cooperative, that’s something we understand. While we are just getting started with our efforts, another cooperative, Great River Energy (GRE), has been re-establishing native habitat for over a decade. For those of you unfamiliar with GRE, they are our power supplier.
Last fall, I met with Jenny Mattson, GRE Communications Specialist, at their Elk River site. Here, they have converted nearly nine acres of manicured lawn into pollinator-friendly habitat. During full bloom, the colors are stunning.
I asked Jenny how GRE got started planting native habitat.
“Our first native habitat was at our Maple Grove campus,” she said. “We chose to plant native habitat as a way to uniquely contribute to the pollinator restoration effort. Planting native habitat also reduced maintenance costs and looks beautiful. It helped us attain the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for the campus.”
There is a rising trend, especially among utilities, of planting and managing for pollinators. I asked Jenny why that is so important.
“As a utility, we have unique opportunities to manage and own lands that can be of great use to pollinators,” she said. “Our power line rights-of-way can offer long, continuous plots of habitat. We can partner with land trusts, parks and other organizations to plant pollinator habitat, as we don’t often own the corridor where our power lines are located.”
Over the last several years, government agencies, environmental organizations, the public and the media have been actively taking measures to solve the problem of pollinator loss. GRE simply wants to do their part. We feel the same way.
Commitment to Community
To date, GRE has restored approximately 200 acres to native habitat and will continue to seek opportunities for new projects. “Pollinator-friendly habitat projects support our commitment to invest in Minnesota communities,” said Jenny.
This commitment to community is what sets cooperatives apart. What GRE and other co-ops around the state and nation are doing to help pollinators is truly inspiring. Pollinators may be small, but their plight has large-scale effects. Thank you to Jenny Mattson for taking the time to share GRE’s story. Join us next time when we explore pollinator-friendly solar.
February 18, 2019
Minnesota winters can be long…very long. Snow, ice, and frigid temperatures seem to take up more than their fair share of the year. The winter blues settle in quickly. It helps to have something to look forward to, and for me, that something is Spring!
Spring may seem far out of reach, but it’s the best time to start planning your garden—specifically, your pollinator garden. We are excited to break ground on our pollinator habitat in Superior, WI, and hope to inspire you to do the same.
When planning your garden, consider three things:|
- Space: Where can you plant? Perhaps a plot of land within your yard or community garden. Other places include planter boxes or along the perimeter of your house.
- Plant size: Big or small, every plant makes a difference.
- Cost: Native plants may be more expensive, but they provide the best benefit to pollinators and the ecosystem.
Think of the pollinator species you want to attract.
here are many guides available to help you choose the correct plants, whether you are interested in attracting bees, birds, or butterflies. While each garden will be different, there are tips that work for every garden type.
- Plant flowers that provide pollen and nectar throughout the entire growing season.
- Create habitat with nesting sites, shelter, and water sources.
- Eliminate the use of pesticides.
Not all flowers are created equally.
It is best to choose locally-sourced, native species. Native plants have adapted to the local climate; therefore, they provide the best source of nutrition to native animals. It is also important to plant a variety of flowers that bloom throughout the season. This will provide a continuous food source and increase the likelihood of pollinator survival.
In addition to planting plenty of flowers, you will want to include native grasses and semi-bare patches of soil to create habitat. Most native species of bees are solitary ground nesters. Avoid disturbance to any nest sites, including mulching and tilling. You can even build your own artificial bee nests—for details, check out the instructions from the Xerces Society at .
Do not use pesticides.
The prolific use of insecticides, specifically those similar to nicotine (look for “neonicotinoids” on the label), has been extremely detrimental to pollinator populations. Toxicity levels can remain months to years after application. Before planting, ensure there will be no drift from neighboring crop fields. Select a site that has been free from insecticide use for at least two years. And finally, use only targeted herbicide treatments for weed control during times when they are most effective and least harmful to pollinators.
Seed assistance is available.
There are non-profit organizations that will provide seed to you at either no cost or on a cost-share basis. They each have a different set of rules, but you could save hundreds (or even thousands) in the end. Here are just a few of the sites:
- - Check out their Seed a Legacy Habitat Program.
- - They offer free milkweed plugs to individuals and schools.
- - While they don’t offer free seed or plants, they do provide free apps and ecoregional planting guides.
Final thoughts: Think green!
Let’s kick the winter blues and help save our pollinators. It will take a lot of us, doing our small parts, to make a big impact.
Our next blog post will explore what Great River Energy, our power supplier, is doing to help pollinators too. Be sure to like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter so you don’t miss out!
January 31, 2019
What’s the buzz all about?
If you’ve checked your social media feed or watched the news lately, you may have heard about the declining population of the world’s pollinator species. But, have you ever wondered how the population of an insect or bird could affect you? Well, think about these statistics from the USDA:
- Pollinators are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.
- They are directly responsible for pollinating 35% of the world’s food crops.
- They pollinate 75-90% of the world’s flowering plants.
Do you feel differently now? I know I did when I first heard those staggering numbers.
Birds, bees, bats, butterflies, flies, and small mammals make up the majority of what are considered ‘pollinator’ species. They use their bodies to pick up pollen from one plant and deliver it to another. This is the first step in pollination that produces seeds, fruits and the next generation of the plant.
Pollinator populations are changing. Let’s look at the monarch butterfly, an iconic pollinator species. Their numbers have declined by more than 80% in the last two decades. Habitat loss is the key driver behind their decline. Milkweed, which is the host plant for the monarch, is often seen as just a weed and eradicated from the landscape. Another contributing factor could be a lack of late-flowering nectar sources along their migration route.
What does all this have to do with an electric co-op?
Many researchers believe we need all-hands-on-deck to boost the pollinator population. With over 8,000 miles of vegetation to manage, ECE can help preserve and promote pollinator habitat in our rights-of-way. And, like you at home, we can plant pollinator gardens.
ECE is researching possible sites to establish pollinator gardens.
To create a diverse and well-maintained pollinator habitat, we have teamed up with MN Native Landscapes (MNL) out of Otsego, MN. MNL has years of experience restoring native vegetation to business and home landscapes. With their expertise, we plan to transform roughly two acres of turf grass and scrub brush into pollinator habitat at our Superior Operations Center. Because native plants have such deep roots, it can take up to three years for the garden to fully establish. We believe the time we put in now will provide more time for our pollinator populations to grow.
In our next blog, we will discuss the benefits of using targeted herbicides in our rights-of-way to promote native vegetation for our wildlife.
January 4, 2019
Welcome to the first edition of Powering Our Pollinators.
Imagine a peaceful, breezy afternoon in your yard or garden. As you enjoy the warm breeze, you see a monarch butterfly softly floating by. Now, listen closely. Do you hear the buzz of a distant bee? Perhaps you swat at a fly that’s making circles around your head. These are our pollinators, and they need help.
Who am I and how did our pollinator project get started?
The great outdoors is where I most wanted to be as a child. Camping, hiking and fishing were three of my favorite activities. That love of nature followed me into adulthood, and I graduated from college with a degree in zoology. I spent many years working at an animal rescue facility, where I learned of the delicate balance between the natural world and the role humans play. While I no longer work directly with animals, East Central Energy (ECE) has given me an opportunity to use my knowledge and passion in a new way.
With the plight of the pollinator now making front page news, many organizations are stepping up to help. I learned of other electric cooperatives building pollinator gardens and large monarch waystations and posed this question to our CEO: Can ECE do more? He immediately said yes. With the help of several other team members, we are researching sites that could be converted from turf grass to pollinator-friendly habitat.
What can you expect?
The Powering Our Pollinators blog will bring you updates on all our pollinator projects and share why protecting pollinators is important. It will also be a forum to discuss how our Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) system promotes pollinator habitat in our rights-of-way. I am excited to get started on this project and hope to share some ways you, as a member, can get involved in helping pollinators too. Catch the next installment, where we will discuss the importance of pollinators and what we hope to accomplish.