Sowing pollinator habitat seeds that grow where they’re planted

by Emily Caldwell, The Ohio State University
February 4, 2022

When it comes to establishing prairies that support pollinators on reclaimed industrial land, a new study suggests native plant diversity matters less than seeding species with the ability to persist in poor soils.

Researchers found that flowering plants hardy enough to blossom and survive in about 6 inches of topsoil – including some non-native plants – were the best ecological bet for unmanaged plots designed to provide habitat for bees, butterflies, wasps and other pollinators for the long term.

The study produced a rare 10-year dataset on pollinator habitat plot experiments that Ohio State University scientists conducted at The Wilds, a conservation center in southeast Ohio located on the site of a former coal strip-mining operation.

As a group, the dozens of plots lost more than 75% of flowers over a decade, but the quality of the plantings stabilized after six years to provide a full season of blooms that were accessed by at least 120 species of bees. If the researchers hadn’t kept monitoring for a full 10 years, they would have finished the study with vastly different conclusions about what works – and what doesn’t.

“If you’re only monitoring a planting for three years, you’re going to overestimate how good that is in the long run. Between years four and six we had a massive decline in the abundance of flowers,” said Karen Goodell, senior author of the study and a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State Newark.

“On the other hand, some species stuck around. You need to plan to have flowers at the beginning, but you also need to plant species that might take a few years to get going and are going to last as long as a decade.”

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