On the Wings of Pollinators
TPWD guidelines help you fill your yard with butterflies, birds and bees.
By Melissa Gaskill
Jim Wittliff steers a well-traveled four-by-four utility vehicle down a slope and stops to point out piles of brush surrounding small trees. The brush, he explains, protects the seedlings from browsing deer, trampling livestock, wind and rain. Wittliff and his wife, Mitzie, have spent the past few years making these and other improvements on their 300-acre Blanco County ranch, Agarita Hills, which has been in the family for 150 years.
The Wittliffs based many of their improvements on land management guidelines developed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to support native pollinators. Their efforts created an oasis of native plants that attract pollinators (as well as a wildlife tax valuation). But, as the couple zigzags across the property’s gently rolling hills, naming dozens of species of trees, grasses and wildflowers, it becomes clear the tax break was merely a bonus.
TPWD’s pollinator guidelines join a flurry of pollinator programs from other organizations and agencies. Examples include Texan by Nature’s Monarch Wrangler; the National Wildlife Federation’s Butterfly Heroes and Mayor’s Monarch Pledge; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project; and Monarch Joint Venture (which involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, the Native Plant Society of Texas, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Nature Conservancy, TPWD and dozens of other partners). All represent a response to dramatic declines in populations of the native insects that pollinate wildflowers and agricultural crops. For example, the population of monarchs, those iconic butterflies that migrate through Texas every spring and fall, has plummeted 90 percent in the past 20 years. The U.S. also has lost more than 50 percent of the managed European honeybee colonies that provide pollination services for agriculture.
A vital part of natural ecosystems and agriculture alike, pollination is the transfer of pollen grains from the male part, or anther, of one plant to the female part, or stigma, of another. This fertilization results in development of seeds and fruits, which are the means of reproduction for the plant as well as sources of food for people and animals. Some plants self-pollinate, but many rely on insects, birds, bats or wind to transfer pollen between different plants. This cross-pollination creates greater genetic diversity and, overall, a healthier plant community.
As much as 80 percent of all plant species need pollinators, including the majority of flowering plants in diverse ecosystems across Texas. On the agricultural side, insects pollinate U.S. crops with an estimated annual worth of more than $15 billion. Bees alone pollinate 30 percent of our food sources, including apples, tomatoes, broccoli, sunflowers, strawberries, nuts and onions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists 130 crops pollinated by bees. Livestock crops such as alfalfa and clover also rely on insect pollinators.
Many crops, including blueberries, grapes, olives, peanuts, pumpkins, squash, strawberries and tomatoes, are more effectively pollinated by native bees than the non-native honeybee. The added benefit to farmers is that pollination by native bees is essentially free, as opposed to leasing commercial honeybee hives for crop pollination. The pollination service provided to U.S. agriculture by native bees has been estimated to be more than $3 billion annually.
Texas has several hundred native bee species, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees and long-horned bees. These species play a critical role in the maintenance of various ecosystems, pollinating plants that produce food for native birds, mammals and other insects. Bees tend to be more effective pollinators than other insects such as beetles, butterflies, moths and wasps, transferring pollen from flower to flower as they collect it to feed their offspring. A female bee may visit several hundred flowers a day and pollinate 5,000 blossoms in her lifetime. Bees also tend to visit only the flowers of one particular species on any one foraging trip, ensuring that pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species.
Butterflies pollinate many species of wildflowers, primarily those that are brightly colored, grow in clusters, stay open during the day and have flat surfaces for landing. In addition, butterflies are themselves food for birds, small animals and other insects.
The possibility of losing the valuable services of native pollinators spurred TPWD to look at how to encourage landowners to create wildlife management plans that protect and support these species. Private landowner involvement is critical because more than 95 percent of Texas land is privately owned. The resulting “Management Recommendations for Native Insect Pollinators in Texas” outlines a variety of practices including prescribed burning, native plant reseeding, installation of native pollinator plots and creation of nest sites. Most apply to small backyards and large ranches alike.
Landowners who follow the management practices not only may qualify for an agricultural tax appraisal based on wildlife management use, but also create natural habitat that benefits farms and fields nearby in addition to their own property.
At Agarita Hills, the Wittliffs worked closely with Blake Hendon, TPWD wildlife biologist for Blanco, Hays and Travis counties, employing a few of what Jim calls “country boy methods” to restore native vegetation. In addition to brush cages, they built slash piles and tepees to protect small seedlings, trimmed back junipers to increase plant diversity, and added berms of rock and brush, which Jim refers to as trinches, to slow runoff of water.
Trinchera is the Spanish word for trench, and many landowners use berms to slow water along with trenches to direct water to ponds or other impoundments, according to Hendon.
“Jim was initially excited about the construction of trincheras based on the idea of capturing water on the property,” Hendon says. “Over the years, we’ve discussed the pros and cons of this type of manipulation, and based on those discussions, he has moved more to using brush and limbs placed on the ground to slow water, aid plant establishment, build soil and develop healthy plant communities.”
Those healthy plant communities in turn serve to capture water, without the need for constructing impoundments.
In addition to selectively planting native trees and grasses, the Wittliffs routinely carry paper bags when out on their land. They fill these with seeds they hand-harvest from existing plants and, in the fall, scatter those seeds on areas where they notice that a particular plant seems to do well.
Don’t eat the daisies
The Wittliffs completely removed livestock from the property roughly 10 years ago, but the TPWD guidelines note that cattle grazing intensity can be managed to protect and enhance nectar and pollen plants. Goats and sheep feed heavily on nectar- and pollen-bearing wildflowers and should not be grazed on land managed for pollinators. In addition, ponds, streams and other water sources may need protection from trampling by grazing livestock.
In the Texas Hill Country, browsing by deer limits the growth of many pollinator plants. So, Agarita Hills sports a two-acre plot surrounded by a deer-proof fence. Here, Jim and Mitzie planted a variety of native plants and regularly scatter those seeds they collect. Several years in, the plot bursts with mountain laurel, Engelmann daisy, Texas star, horsemint, bluebonnets, Indian blanket, big bluestem and more, the riotous growth ending abruptly at the fence line.
The addition of three ponds brought back a variety of native grasses around the property, and bushy bluestem and muhly grasses planted near natural seeps flourish. Healthy native plant ecosystems serve to improve the quality of
water sources on the ranch. In addition, these plants support a variety of wildlife.
“When we first started, we didn’t see any quail on the property,” Jim says. “Now, we hear them all the time. We’re returning the ranch to similar conditions that I enjoyed as a boy growing up. Just the least little bit of care makes a big difference.”
Planting for monarchs
On his family ranch in Crockett County, Philip Walker first started taking steps to improve the health of his land and the wildlife on it about 10 years ago. More recently, he connected with Texan by Nature and Monarch Watch to create better habitat specifically for monarchs. Walker planted a lot of antelope horn, one of 37 species of milkweed native to Texas. Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed, and the caterpillars rely on it for food. Loss of native milkweed and habitat is a primary factor behind the decline of the butterfly species.
“The ranch was overgrazed for many decades,” Walker says. “We started to incorporate prescribed fire, which has really turned the place around, along with some mechanical removal of cedar and planting of grasses and flowers.”
Expert input from the monarch programs and TPWD biologists Mary Humphrey and Joyce Moore has proved invaluable, Walker says.
“It’s been thrilling to see the land change, and it’s nice to have land to be able to do things like help out pollinators,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s part of being a good land steward. It’s part of the management, along with cattle, oil and gas, and hunting.”
Walker sees pollinators as the proverbial “canary in a coal mine” for a landowner.
“If the land is healthy for pollinators, that’s probably a good sign that it is healthy for everything else,” he says. “If you don’t have pollinators, you probably have a problem.”
His benefits didn’t end with healthy land, either.
“The icing on the cake through all these projects has been the great people we’ve met along the way,” Walker says. “People have given us their time, their knowledge and support. It’s been tremendous, the willingness to help wildlife. Wildlife people are passionate and organized.”