Thursday, May 20 was designated by the United Nations as “World Bee Day” in an attempt to highlight the central role of pollinators in all of our lives. You may not particularly notice the pollinators around your home, such as bees, hummingbirds, bats, moths, beetles, and butterflies – but it’s important to know that without these mostly unobtrusive essential workers, we could lose about 75% of the flowers that grow naturally or that we cultivate, and more than one-third of our food crops! It has been calculated that the work of pollinators contributes somewhere between $235 – $577 billion dollars to the U.S. economy every year.
Like most animals you’ll meet at the Reid Park Zoo, the pollinators who are now visiting in increasing numbers (more about that later) are suffering the negative effects of habitat loss – but for these specialized workers, they are especially vulnerable to the use of pesticides. But a new concept, which the Ecological Landscaping Alliance compares to the Victory Gardens of World Wars I and II, is gaining steam – the Pollinator Garden! The idea is being widely disseminated with the goal of helping to restore food sources for insects (and when you consider agriculture, also food shortages for humans). And the appeal of this notion is that individuals can plant their own gardens, creating mini-habitats for pollinators on a balcony, in a back yard, or anywhere plants can thrive.
The Reid Park Zoo decided that a Pollinator Garden was a perfect addition to their conservation activities, and to be true to their mission statement, part of which reads “to protect wild animals and wild places.” So when the three Aldabra Tortoises (all approximately-900 pounds of them) were moved to a larger habitat which became available, the Pollinator Garden was born. Carefully landscaped with native, low-water plantings, the garden is a beautiful stop on the pathway to the Conservation Learning Center, and soon to the planned World of Play, which is a part of the Reid Park Zoo expansion plans.
The Garden is easy to find and fascinating to observe. You won’t only see some lovely flowering desert plants, but some non-aggressive bees taking treats to holes in poles – these are specially constructed bee houses. You will likely see a few varieties of Monarch Butterflies stopping for a snack, and perhaps a hummingbird or two. And quite often, you’ll see members of the Reid Park Zoo staff crouching intently among the plants, recording data furiously on their phones. Part of the Pollinator Garden’s mission is to support the American Monarch SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, and this requires detailed information about the numbers and habits of the Monarch Butterflies which stop into the Zoo during their migration to Mexico.
If you look a little higher up, you may find some interesting boxes mounted on the fence or in the nearby trees. One is a “bee box” designed for honeybees, and these are periodically taken to agricultural areas to further their pollination activities. In collaboration with the Audubon Society, bird boxes have been strategically placed near the Garden and in a few other locations in the Zoo, to provide safe haven for songbirds, particularly Lucy’s Warblers, Flycatchers, Kestrels, and Screech Owls. The Zoo and the Audubon Society are interested in protecting all these species, who may come to the garden hunting for some delicious insects – and they’ll most likely find them. The birds, like the pollinators, also need some protection. Since 1970, North America has lost about 25% of our native birds. Protection of the American Songbird is another of the Zoo’s SAFE initiatives.
How can you help pollinators thrive? Well, you can visit the Pollinator Garden at the Zoo and learn about the importance of these often unnoticed heroes of agriculture. You can also find a spot to plant your own pollinator garden at home. Local nurseries which carry native plants can help you with plant selection, and the nice folks at the Reid Park Zoo are eager to help you get started as well. You’ll get a very pleasant garden and also the great feeling that you are making a difference.