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Plant these species to attract pollinators

As the world modernizes and becomes more developed each passing day, those who love the land sometimes look around in concern as wide open spaces are replaced by residences and industries. But in rural Franklin County, at least, there’s still the opportunity to protect the great outdoors. One way is by planting pollinator habitats in the local area – a particular focus for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Adam Dattilo is a botanist for the TVA, on the front lines of attracting pollinators to the Valley. He said although the TVA is, of course, focused on TVA natural areas and rights of way, planting for pollinators is something any homeowner might want to pursue.

“There are a number of reasons you would want pollinating species around your home,” Dattilo said. “Pollinators, when there are healthy populations, represent one component of a healthy environment in general. If you have a vegetable garden, a good number of those vegetable crops – from tomatoes to zucchini – need those pollinators. For biologists or those who like an outdoor setting, it’s interesting to see all the different kinds of insects and creatures that are right there in your yard.”

Dattilo, who works in biological compliance for the TVA, said in addition to vegetation management and monitoring endangered plants on TVA lands, he and other botanists have been actively working to plant pollinator habitats – “usually in places where we can use them as a learning opportunity for the general public.”

“Places with regular vegetation management can provide pretty decent pollinator habitats,” Dattilo explained. “Most of the open areas – and by open, I mean no trees, not a forest – most of those areas today are manipulated pretty heavily: grazed by cattle, or they are hayfields, or a lawn or something like that.” Natural areas of wildflowers and grasses are not nearly as common as previously – and that’s something the TVA is hoping to change.

For landowners, Dattilo said the kind of land – farm, neighborhood, big naturalized garden or small manicured landscape – will determine how a person can go about planting species that will attract pollinators.

Someone who doesn’t have a lot of space can still add a number of plants in a mulched bed that will attract pollinators – like milkweed. “The monarch butterfly, for instance, requires milkweed to lay eggs and rear young, so that’s kind of a hot button issue people are tuned into right now,” Dattilo said. “Classic butterfly milkweed looks pretty attractive in a small manicured bed.” Dattilo added common milkweed, on the other hand, “can be pretty assertive in a bed, but if you had a naturalized setting in a field, it would be a great plant to have because monarchs love to lay eggs on that plant.”

In general, Dattilo said, a diversity of species is important. “You’re not just planting a field of butterfly milkweed. You would have a number of plant pollinators visit throughout the year.” Native plants are the best choice – from wild bergamot and blazing star to sunflowers and goldenrod. “With planting, I think it’s good for folks to focus on native pants when they can – stuff that is adapted to local environments. The pollinators that are present in north Alabama are often adapted. There’s benefit in using plants in the landscape that those species are adapted to.”

Another option in a large field area is to leave it unmown – providing the perfect habitat for bees.

“If you had a small, manicured setting – a mulched bed around your home – you don’t want to leave that unmown and unkept,” Dattilo said, “but if you had a larger landscape, many native bees nest underground, so it’s good to have these unmown areas or areas of bare soil where these native bees can nest.”

For someone interested in planting or enhancing pollinator habitats, Dattilo said programs exist that can aid the process. The Natural Resource Conservation Service of the USDA is one agency that can provide assistance, and Dattilo recommended turning to companies that sell native plant seeds for their input on the types of plants that will grow well on a given property “by far a more economical approach than planting live plants in a larger area.”

Dattilo said when it comes to planting pollinator habitats, “every little bit helps.”

“When people start to work on their own little piece of the world, those benefits can scale up, where we can foster those pollinator populations across the Tennessee Valley.”