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Pollinators find salvation, friends along the Butterfly Highway

The bees and butterflies flitting through your yard this summer don’t hint at a dark reality: The pollinators that feed the world are starving.

More than 200,000 species, mostly insects, carry pollen grains from male to female parts of flowers for reproduction. Three-quarters of the globe’s food crops rely on pollinators.

But up to 40 percent – chiefly bees and butterflies – face extinction, the United Nations reported earlier this year. Habitat losses leave too few of the native plants that feed pollinators and nurture their young. Pesticides, invasive species, disease and climate change all take tolls.

Charlotte is part of the growing response to a global crisis.

Earlier this year the Charlotte-based N.C. Wildlife Federation launched the Butterfly Highway. The program recruits volunteers to create a network of oases for the hardworking insects.

The response was unexpected. The program began in February with 50 volunteers in west Charlotte. By June more than 800 people had signed on statewide, tending plots from apartment balconies to 100-acre farms.

“This is something that anyone can do because it doesn’t cost any money, and you can belong to a bigger network,” said the federation’s Angel Hjarding, a UNC Charlotte doctoral student who leads the program.

The basics are simple: Tend native plants; offer water; avoid insecticide use.

The plight of pollinators is gaining international attention. Before the UN’s jarring report, the Obama administration announced a plan last year to make 7 million acres of federal land more pollinator-friendly. There’s also a federally sanctioned National Pollinator Week, which began Monday.

Just as striking is that ordinary people want to help.

The Asheville-based nonprofit Bee City USA, which works to raise awareness of pollinators, got its start in 2012. Now 22 U.S. cities, including Matthews, are Bee Cities and 13 university campuses have signed up to hold public awareness events.

“The sad news is that because pollinators are so small and work so hard and go about their business, they just haven’t been noticed,” said founder Phyllis Stiles. “People have gotten the memo that no bees, no food.”

Stiles was named U.S. advocate of the year in 2015 by the Pollinator Partnership, the largest nonprofit in the field. But after years of work for nonprofit groups, she knew little about pollinators until 2007.

That’s when news broke that 30 to 90 percent of domestic honey bee hives were being lost, the vital worker bees are disappearing. Losses have moderated since, but the cause of colony collapse disorder, as it is called, remains a mystery. Researchers suspect a mix of reasons, including invasive mites, new diseases and pesticide poisoning.

“Our goal is being PC – pollinator conscious – so that when you start to pull out that bottle of Roundup (weed killer), you might pause and think of pollinators and say ‘maybe I don’t need that,’ ” Stiles said.

In Chatham County, west of Raleigh, extension agent Debbie Roos created a demonstration pollination garden in 2008. Since then, she’s led more than 100 garden tours while presenting programs across the state.

“People come to my workshops and go home with milkweed plants” on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs, Roos said. “Then I get the proud pictures the next year of a monarch.”

The enthusiasm can be contagious.

Ron Ross, a mortgage auditor and caregiver in Charlotte, wanted to find a project that would engage his community off Beatties Ford Road. He found it in the pollinator gardens that a half-dozen neighbors have tended since last summer as forerunners of the Butterfly Highway.

“Once it took hold, it seemed like all of a sudden we started seeing butterflies that we hadn’t seen before,” Ross said.

Neighbors use charts to identify species they see, reporting the data to Hjarding. They also expanded their initial work, seeding wildflowers on a vacant acre owned by Piedmont Natural Gas and installing bluebird houses.

“I call myself a city boy,” Ross said, “but that’s changing.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Butterfly Highway pollinator gardens:

▪ Have no minimum size.

▪ Get at least six hours of sun a day.

▪ Offer native trees, shrubs or flowers, including nectar plants.

▪ Have places for insects to raise young, such as butterfly eggs.

▪ Use no chemical pesticides.

Details: www.butterflyhighway.org

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