The Stewardship Ranch works to showcase native pollinator habitat maintenance and development strategies. Native pollinators face threats from many sources, including insecticides, intensive farming/ranching practices and urban development.
With the mounting threats to honeybees, there are concerns about the need for native pollinators to provide pollination of food crops. Livestock operations can benefit from native pollinators by improving the seed set on legumes in pastures. While native pollinator habitat has been studied and promoted in different regions of the United States, limited work has been done in the eastern Oklahoma region.
Slideshow: Pollinators on the Kerr Ranch
Native pollinators include numerous bees, flies, beetles and bats. Pollinators are essential to the environment. The ecological service they provide is necessary for the reproduction of nearly 75% of the world’s flowering plants. This includes more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species. The fruit, seed, and animal production supported by pollinators provides over 30% of the foods and beverages consumed in this country. The annual economic value of insect-pollinated crops in the United States was estimated to be $20 billion in 2000, with native insects contributing at least $3 billion.
In 2006, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences released the report Status of Pollinators in North America, which called attention to the decline of pollinators resulting from habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, as well as pesticide use.
Honey bees provide the bulk of crop pollination in the U.S., yet the number of managed honey bee hives has declined by 50% since the 1950s. Each year, the U.S. beekeeping industry loses more than 30% of hives from a variety of problems, including diseases, pests, and Colony Collapse Disorder. Recent research on crop pollination, however, has demonstrated that native bees also make a significant contribution to crop pollination, in some cases providing all of the pollination required – when enough habitat is available.
Today, habitat supporting these native pollinators is more important than ever as honey bee hives become more expensive and difficult to acquire. Furthermore, research suggests that increased pollen diversity leads to higher fitness in honey bees; diverse wildflower plantings benefit honey bees, as well as native species. The 2008 Farm Bill included pollinators as a priority resource concern of conservation programs.
To successfully implement pollinator conservation projects, farmers and NRCS conservation planners need detailed specifications for different regions of the country. While the plant composition needed to support a diverse and abundant community of pollinators is understood, there is a lack of specific information on how to establish plantings that contain diverse wildflowers. Growing monocultures of native grasses is comparatively simple, where broad-leaf herbicides are available to help with weed control. When establishing diverse wildflower meadows, growers have fewer weed control tools, making site preparation (e.g. weed abatement) very important.
Conservationists and growers also have concerns about establishing habitat that is able to sustain diverse shrub and wildflower communities over time. Finally, while many growers support the idea of conserving pollinator habitat, they are also concerned about bloom competition between target crops and habitat plantings, the potential for plantings to become weeds in the main crop, or for these plantings to harbor crop pests or diseases.
With help from a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and in partnership with the Xerces Society, the Kerr Center is working to
1) Implement plantings at the Kerr Center Ranch to use in outdoor classrooms for students, teachers and NRCS employees to learn proper planting, plant identification, and management techniques for native pollinator habitat. Plantings focus on plants native to Eastern Oklahoma and those associated with native pollinators.
2) Install a stabilized stream crossing point within the riparian area native pollinator habitat, to demonstrate the establishment of native pollinator habitat within a working ranch program.
”I applied for the native pollinator grant out of concern for the problems honeybees were experiencing. Also, the drastic decline in bumblebee populations is a cause for concern,” says David Redhage, Director of Ranch Operations.
Very little work has been done in eastern Oklahoma using onsite demonstrations of native plants, he says, and the 4,000 acres of the Kerr Ranch offer a wide diversity of habitats for native plants and the pollinators attracted to them.
It's also a great place to collect seeds.
“I have collected seed for wild yellow indigo, Illinois bundleflower, basketflower, and Ohio spiderwort on or near the ranch,” he says.
During his hunt for native plants, he has been surprised a few times. Once he found an unexpected plethora of Illinois bundleflower along a railroad track. Just before putting in an order for compass plant, he stumbled onto a patch in a pasture.
Collecting seed locally seems to improve the chance of a successful planting, Redhage says. “If purchased, seeds should be selected from seed houses specializing in the state or region where they're to be planted.”
Redhage has several species ready to plant. “The ones I expect to do the best are the goldenrods, Illinois bundleflower, Indian blanket, lanceleaf coreopsis, plains coreopsis, and Maxmillian sunflower.”
Landscape beds around the Kerr Center’s office have been planted in native plants: grasses, wildflower and trees.
“I hope this project increases awareness among ranchers, farmers and homeowners in Eastern Oklahoma on the importance of our pollination resources and how to manage for better pollinator habitat,” says Redhage.
The native pollinator work fits well into the center's long term natural resource management program, which includes protection of riparian areas.
As an additional benefit, native pollinator habitat can enhance market development for native seed producers who are currently struggling in the face of declining CRP markets.
Hives of honeybees have also been set on the ranch to increase pollination and set of legumes in ranch pastures. Wood Duck boxes and two bat houses were recently added to the mix. Redhage hopes little brown bats will take up residence in the bat houses. Reportedly, this common bat can devour 600-1000 mosquitoes per hour.
However, in recent years, the species has fallen victim to the lethal White Nose
Syndrome, which has decimated populations in some parts of the country.
Oklahoma Pollinator Short Course
(Jennifer Hopwood, Xerces Society, May 2012)
Bumble Bee Conservation
Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms
Farming for Pest Management
Farming for Pollinators
Cultivando Para Los Polinizadores
Managing Native Pollinators
(Book - Eric Mader, Maria Spivak, and Elaine Evans - SARE 2010)
The Monarch Flower Partnership
Organic-approved pesticides: Minimizing risks to pollinators
Organic farming practices: Reducing harm to pollinators
Plant List (fall 2012 planting mix on the Kerr Ranch)
Pollinator Habitat Assessment Form and Guide
Protecting Nature’s Essential Service: The Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program
South Central Plants for Native Bees
Tunnel Nests for Native Bees: Nest Construction and Management
Using Farm Bill Programs for Pollinator Conservation
USDA-NRCS Technical Note No. 78, August 2008
This material is based upon work supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 69-7335-1-21.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.