Beyond Monarch butterflies: pollinators and politics at Texas Pollinator PowWow

The fifth Texas Pollinator PowWow assembled in the piney woods of Nacogdoches, Texas, last weekend. About 75 people made their way to Texas’ oldest city to celebrate pollinators in all their forms–syrphid flies, solitary wasps, fireflies, hummingbirds, bears, bats, bees, and yes–Monarch butterflies. The PowWow bills itself as “a gathering of the people to listen to wise words.”

Bees and butterflies get all the press, but Texas Pollinator PowWow celebrated pollinators in all their forms last weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This year, more than a dozen sessions enlightened the crowd on how to attract and better understand pollinators and the ecosystems that sustain them–and in turn, us. Over two days, attendees learned how to build food prairies that boost vegetable garden yields, how and why you should attract solitary wasps to your garden (They keep nonbeneficial insects in check and most don’t sting.), the state of the union of bats, bears and fireflies in Texas, and much more.

Dr. Ellen J. Sharp

Dr. Ellen J. Sharp, a cultural anthropologist who lives at the entrance of Cerro Pelon, one of the most visited Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in the mountains of Mexico, presented one of the most compelling sessions. Her talk, “Butterflies and their People,” offered a provocative perspective on the roosting sites and the people who share them with our favorite migrating insect.  “People continue to cut down the forest,” Sharp told the crowd on Saturday, citing a lack of transparency and no accountability in management of the forests. “Every time I go hiking I find someone logging.”

Sharp offered a quick history of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR), including an explanation of the communal properties known as ejidos, which have rights to the land where the Monarchs roost each winter. The ejidatarios, or managers of the ejidos, are paid by the government to not log in the MBBR–yet people living there must make a living to feed their families and warm their homes.  “Only the ejidatarios are rewarded financially” Sharp said. “Everyone else is effectively disenfranchised.”

Dr. Pablo Jaramillo Lopez, an agroecologist at the National Autonomus University of Mexico in Michoacán, echoed Sharp’s sentiments, exploring the continuing conflict of interest between humans and nature, in his session, “The Hope for Monarch Butterflies in North America.”

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“How close can I get to take a selfie?” asked Jaramillo, characterizing the priorities of most visitors to the roosting sites. “Tourists that visit the overwintering Monarch butterfly colonies think that nature is putting on a show for them and do not realize that they are invading a very sensitive natural ecosystem,” said Jaramillo.

In a panel discussion, Dr. Rebecca Quiñonez, a forest hydrologist and executive director of Forests for Monarchs, a nonprofit organization that works with the people of La Cruz, Mexico on reforestation, added that degradation in the MBBR buffer zone is contributing to major environmental decline. All three speakers with direct experience in Mexico expressed concern that Grupo Mexico may soon receive its permit to reopen an abandoned copper mine in the heart of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve. The trio proposed that the only way to conserve this precious area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is to have complete transparency and accountability in government and fulltime jobs for locals.

On a more upbeat note, the PowWow added two evening field trips to the program for the first time this year.

Carrie McLaughlin

Carrie McLaughlin, PowWow Organizer

On Friday night, PowWow cofounder Carrie McLaughlin assembled a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collect and record data on bats on an acoustic hike with renown bat expert Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International and more recently Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, where he makes his extraordinary bat photos available online for use at no charge.

The outing, held at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Experimental Forest a few miles outside town, included a trek down a dirt road lined with pine trees to a natural wallow where mist netting stretched across the water like a bad mitten net. Thirsty bats in the area swooped down to take a sip and were snagged in the net. Biologists and students from Stephen F. Austin State University then waded into the wallow to retrieve the bats for data collection, which included a Q-tip swipe test for white-nosed syndrome, the alarming fungal disease that has decimated the bat population and has just moved into Texas.

Dr. Merlin Tutle

Dr. Merlin Tuttle, worldwide bat expert, examines a red bat at Texas Pollinator PowWow’s Bat Night. Photo by Jeff Dye, Earth Day Texas

“I’m just going to calm this guy down,” said Tuttle, petting a fuzzy, captured Red Bat, as if it were a small kitten. Tuttle seemed unperturbed when the bat nipped at his finger. “Aw. He didn’t even draw blood,” he said.

For decades, the indefatigable Tuttle has worked to undo the image of bats as scary, rabies-carrying, blood-sucking monsters. The red-blooded creatures are actually mostly harmless and perform valuable ecosystem services like eating thousands of insects per hour each night and pollinating our mangos, bananas, cocoa, and agave.

Tuttle’s bat PR seems to be working. Just as in bird or Monarch tagging, opportunities for interspecies connections can be some of the most powerful conduits for understanding. Two young girls waited eagerly at the biologist’s table begging to pet the bats. “They’re so cute!” they cooed.

Leopard Moth

Former woolly bear caterpillar morphs into the lovely Leopard Moth at Texas Pollinator PowWow’s Moth Night in Nacogdoches, Texas. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On Saturday, a Moth Night took place at the SFA Native Plant garden. While city lights and cool temps seemed to keep many moths away, we spotted several impressive species, including the lovely Leopard Moth.

 

When’s the next PowWow? PowWow co-founder and National Resource Conservation Service wildlife biologist Rickey Linex said dates and times are not fixed yet.

“We try to get to every vegetational field in the state,” he said, citing past PowWows in Mansfield, Austin, Lubbock and Kerrville. Perhaps San Angelo or Marfa will be next. Stay tuned.

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Happy Pollinator Week! Unpaid Workers of Our Food Web Deserve Respect and Resources

Monday kicks off Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of those that make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible.

Bee on sunflower

Bees are the master pollinators and keep our food affordable. Photo courtesy FWS/Cristina De La Garza

Yes, that’s correct:   birds, butterflies, beetles, bats, and moths make our food happen.  Were it not for the free ecosystem services provided by these creatures, food would cost much more and many would go hungry.

Just like our underpaid food service industry workers whose minimum wages don’t aptly reflect their contribution to society, pollinators get little respect.  That’s changing.  But in the meantime, since we pay them nothing for their valuable services, can we at least make a greater effort to understand, appreciate and support pollinators?

pw15logoFINALbThat’s the goal of Pollinator Week, organized by the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to the greater understanding and appreciation of pollinators and their ecosystems. The week-long event seeks to call attention to these valued members of our food web through activities, outreach and education.

Pollinators have been making news lately.  Just last month, President Barack Obama released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document that lays out a plan to reverse the disturbing trend of pollinator decline.  It results from the work of a Pollinator Task Force established by the President last June.

The strategy document reflects grave concern and a serious attempt to address these depressing  facts:  Bee populations plummeted 40% last year.  The magnificent Monarch butterfly migration is at risk, since the butterflies’ numbers have dropped 90% in recent years from their high in the 90s.  The butterfly is being considered for listing as  “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  Bats populations have also taken a deep dive, and they’re fighting a strange malady called white-nose syndrome.   All pollinators face massive habitat destruction, climate change, pesticide abuse and  agricultural and developement practices that don’t support their existence.

Obama

Thanks, Obama! For making pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Of the 100+ official Pollinator Week events listed on the Pollinator Partnership website, Texas lists seven–with no official events in San Antonio or Austin.   I’m embarrassed.  Next year, people, we will have our own events.  (NOTE:  Stay tuned for details on our Malt, Hops and Moths event at the Alamo Brewery, July 23, which will celebrate National Moth Week!)

Unofficially, though, several local organizations are staging events that happen to celebrate pollinators during Pollinator Week.  Here they are.

Butterfly Count at San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Hardberger Park

Get your citizen scientist on with Patty Leslie Pastzor, San Antonio’s local denizen of native plants.  Pastzor has organized a butterfly census as part of the official North American Butterfly Association count, Monday, June 15, and Thursday, June 18.

Cowpen Daisy is a butterfly magnet and easy to grow

Help count butterflies for the North American Butterfly Association and learn about native plants at the same time with Patty Leslie Pastzor this week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The outings include hikes centered around identifying and collecting data on San Antonio area butterflies. The June 15 event takes place at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  On Thursday morning volunteers will gather at Phil Hardberger Park. A $3 fee applies to register your data. Wear a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes. For more info or to RSVP, contact Pastzor at 210.837.0577 or email agarita@me.com.

Pollinator Talk at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin

As part of their Nature Nights series, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center will host a pollinator overview Thursday, June 18, 6 – 9 PM.  The event is FREE. Bat Conservation International, Travis Audubon Society and the Austin Butterfly Forum will pitch in to explain the importance of pollinators in our food chain.

bats

Did you know that bats pollinate agaves, which makes Tequila possible? Photo via Bat Conservation International

Wildflowers and Whiskey Sours at Cibolo Nature Center, Boerne

Judit Green, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist and plant expert, will offer a tour and conversation during a plant walk through the wildflower bounty at the 60-acre Herff Farm in Boerne, Thursday, June 18. “Adult beverages” provided, as well as drinks for the kids.   6:30 -8:30 PM,  $10.  830.249.4616 for more info.

Further afield, the following are official “Pollinator Week” events.

Pollinator Week at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas 

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo has an entire week of pollinator festivities planned.   Tuesday-birds, Wednesday-butterflies and bats, Thursday-dragonflies, and Friday-pollinator habitat.   Plant giveaways and story time are also part of the programming.   Events start at various times and are FREE with your $5 vehicle entry fee. See the Santa Ana NWR Facebook page for details.

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce.  Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce. Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Pollinator Workshop at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Ft. Davis, Texas

Pollinator expert Cynthia McAllister of Sul Ross State University will lead a pollinator workshop June 20.  It starts indoors with a presentation/overview of the importance of pollinators, then moves outside for a tour of the pollinator garden with close-up binoculars to get a bee’s eye view of the pollination process.  10 AM – noon, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center Visitor Center.  FREE.

For more Pollinator Week events and to learn what you can do to help foster their livelihoods, check out the Pollinator Partnership website.
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Wildly Successful: Pollinator PowWow Draws Hundreds from Texas and Beyond

Icy roads and freezing rain couldn’t stop more than 200 people from making their way to the second annual Pollinator PowWow in Austin this weekend. The all-day gathering of pollinator advocates and native plant evangelists gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Saturday for a full day of education, enlightenment and wisdom sharing.

bee_pollen_macro

Pollen is protein, nectar is carbs–who knew? And bees are master pollinators. –photo via http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Organizer and moderator Carrie McLaughlin opened the session by explaining the deliberate naming of the event.   “A powwow is a gathering of the people to listen to wise words,” she told the packed house, who arrived from five states and 49 Texas counties.   “It’s a joining of the tribes to hear the elders speak,” she said.

Carrie McLaughlin

Carrie McLaughlin, PowWow Moderator

And so it was.  Nine presentations ran like clockwork (well-done, organizers!) and about two dozen exhibitors filled the hall frequented by attendees during the breaks.

Michael Warriner, non game and rare species program leader for Texas Parks & Wildlife, kicked off the schedule with a fascinating overview of native bees in Texas.   While I consider myself relatively well-informed about pollinators, I learned a lot–like this fun fact:  nectar is sugar and pollen is protein. Hadn’t put that one together.   Or: not all bees build social hives, many are loners.

Then Dr. Rebecca Quiñonez-Piñón stepped up to the mic to share the admirable work of  Forests for Monarchs, a nonprofit organization that works with local Mexican populations in La Cruz, Mexico, to reforest the Monarch butterfly roosting sites with native oyamel fir and pine seedlings.   As executive director of the organization, Dr. Quiñonez-Piñón did an eloquent job explaining the needs of local Mexican people to earn a living and warm their homes in the face of environmental pressures to preserve the forest and the Monarch butterfly migration.  “The need for wood is not going to decrease,” she said.  Forests for Monarchs has planted eight million trees since 1997.

Pollinator PowWow

Hundreds braved the ice and cold to attend the Pollinator PowWow at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Photo by Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net

Perhaps one of the most entertaining sessions featured Randy Johnson, an Aggie that works overtime as the horticulture manager of the Dallas zoo and owner of  Randy Johnson Organics in Mesquite, Texas.

Johnson charmed the crowd with his deep knowledge and undisputed passion for native plants and disdain for invasive species:  “By plane or tractor, it don’t matter,” he said in his deep Southern drawl, offering caution on how unacceptable species and chemicals encroach on the natural world.  Johnson compared losing native species to randomly taking parts off a car. “First you lose the visor.  Then the door handle….”   Next thing you know the transmission is out and the car–or the ecosystem–won’t function.

After the lunch break, Dr. Merlin Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International, presented on the importance of bats as pollinators.   The unfairly feared, grossly misunderstood creatures are important pollinators of agaves, fruit trees and other plants.  They also consume monumental amounts of crop damaging insects in their night flights.   Dr. Tuttle, who continues to speak all over the world on behalf of bats, announced the launch of his new website, http://merlintuttle.org/. and the fact that bat photos published there are available to download and use free of charge. 

Merlin Tuttle website

Bat evangelist and BAt Conservation International Founder Dr. Merlin Tuttle announced the launch of his new webpage at the Pollinator PowWow. Photo via www.merlintuttle.com

Later in the afternoon, attendees heard about the ecological and pollinating services provided by birds from urban wildlife biologist Brett Johnson of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Dr. Shalene Jha, of the University of Texas at Austin’s integrative biology department, explained pollination mutualisms–that is, the interconnectedness of plants with the insects and/or animals that inhabit our various ecosystems.

Dr. Shalene Jha

Dr. Shalene Jha, of UT Austin, discussed the “mutualisms” of pollinators. Photo by Mike Quinn, Texasento.net

Those of us with ranch land were intrigued to hear from Ricky Linex, wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service that conversions of ranch or farm land to pollinator habitat might be eligible for various financial and technical assistance programs offered by the state.

In Linex’s session, “Farm Bill Programs for Pollinators,” acronyms ran rampant–EQIP, WHIP, CCRP and many more.   I’ll be looking into these.   Linex also “unofficially” shared news of a $5 million project for habitat management on grazing lands.   “Details are coming soon,” he said.

Finally, Ben Eldredge, Director of Education at the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm in Boerne just outside San Antonio, presented on the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.  Introduced by McLaughlin as “our maverick,” Eldredge focused on how glyphosate–commonly known as Round-Up–contributes immensely to Monarch decline, especially in the midwestern corn belt, and how agricultural practices will need to change if that decline is to stop.    The notion can make some ag folks–and purveyors of pesticides and the service industry that delivers them–uncomfortable.

“If we’re going to get serious about pollinator conservation, then some agricultural practices are going to have to change and it’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” said McLaughlin by phone after the event.

All that fun for only $25.  Feel like you missed out?  McLaughlin says plans are already underway for another  PowWow in Texas later this year, sometime after June.   To tap into pollinator resources, check out the Pollinator PowWow Part2 website.

Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?    

Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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Pollinator Porn: Beguiling Beauty of Pollination Lusciously Captured by Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg

The luscious video clip below should help get your week off to a vibrant start.

Speaking at a TedTalk in March, renown filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg offered a “bit of nectar” from his movie, “Wings Of Life.”

Thanks to my friends at the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association for calling it to my attention.

Using high-res, slo-mo, close-up, time-lapse cinematography, Schwartzberg’s footage is downright sensuous, getting up close with bats, butterflies, bees and the flowers they pollinate while providing an intimate view of  “a love story that feeds the planet.”

Says the award-winning cinematographer:

“Beauty and seduction, I believe, is nature’s tool for survival, because we will protect what we fall in love with.”

Take a look at the video and see if you don’t agree.

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