A Pollinator Pathway
BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY ERIN SULLIVAN AND CAROLE TOPALIAN
It’s called the Pollinator Pathway, and the goal is to create a corridor of plant life suited to bees and other native pollinators essential to sustaining not only ornamental plant life but edibles, too—the broccoli, tomatoes, squash, and other crops Seattleites plant in raised beds and community gardens. The pathway will eventually run for a mile along Columbia Street, terminating at Seattle University on 12th Avenue and at Nora’s Woods, a small neighborhood park on 29th Avenue. The individual gardens are installed on the so-called “planting strips,” the grass between the street and the sidewalk. When it’s completed, the project will be a pollinator highway of plants that provide habitat and food, and allow these animals to move easily between green spaces. There are currently 19 gardens in place.
The idea was born in 2008 when Seattle native Sarah Bergmann began learning more about colony collapse disorder (CCD). The phenomenon impacts European honeybees, a species introduced in the United States that has come to play a pivotal role in modern industrial agriculture.
Honeybee colonies are trucked from one big farm to the next, where they are released to pollinate crops before moving on to another worksite. As they move from flower to flower, pollinators inadvertently pick up bits of male pollen that are—just as inadvertently—dropped onto countless female flower parts, thus enabling the process that allows plants to set the fruit we eat. In the U.S., farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate $15 billion in crops annually.
CCD, then, is pretty scary for farmers and fruit-loving consumers. Honeybee keepers have reported losing as much as 30-90% of their hives to this disorder, the exact cause of which remains unknown, although scientists are making some headway in determining the likely origins. Should it continue, CCD threatens to upend the entire industrial agriculture framework.
Reading about CCD ignited Bergmann’s lifelong interest in environmental sustainability, and she soon realized honeybees are not the only pollinators with problems. Bergmann began to understand that modern humanity tends to create isolated landscapes, where chopped-up pockets of agriculture, urbanism, and industry leave islands of natural green space—and the animal life in them—effectively cut off. Animals from tiny pollinators to large mammals are unable to easily migrate across great distances in the way their biology demands. Pollinators also struggle to find food and shelter in landscapes that are increasingly paved over, threatening an essential aspect of plant reproduction.
“The more I started reading about this the more I started focusing on landscape systems and less on just the honey bee,” Bergmann says. “In addition to that, I grew up going on hikes on weekends, and heck, my mom chose my preschool based on how many plant species there were on the walk, so it’s not like thinking about these topics is totally foreign to my life. I think ecology has been a latent interest of mine and it has naturally culminated in this work.”[/twocolumns]
Bergmann’s background in art and ecological design led her to a creative but intentional approach to these problems. “It springs from the idea that we design things inadvertently and we can design our systems more thoughtfully,” says Bergmann, who freelances as a graphic designer. “It’s a clientless look at the problem of pollinator decline.” Or, perhaps her client is the pollinator, she adds.
Bergmann drew further inspiration from large-scale animal migration corridors such as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which works to provide wildlife with safe migration avenues between protected, wild areas like national parks.
To get started, Bergmann built one test garden and spent a year and a half building support, meeting with the city, and working with a garden designer on the plant composition. She also needed a location for the project, ideally a place that would be bookended by green spaces. The choice became obvious.
[twocolumns]“Nora’s Woods has a lot of native species and is a relatively complex landscape for a house lot-sized scrap of woods. I looked for the next public green space that made sense,” she says. “So it wasn’t so much choosing Columbia as Columbia was the logical route between Nora’s Woods and the other end point, which is Seattle University’s campus,” which has committed to planting native species on its grounds.
Next, Bergmann applied for and won two grants from the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. Since then, she’s received additional grant funding and has relied on donations from individuals. Bergmann also spoke extensively with homeowners on the corridor, generating support with an ease that surprised her.
“I picked this site and I wondered, ‘Will these people say yes?’ The success of the project depends on these 60 people, and to me that was incredibly exciting and interesting,” Bergmann says. “They could have all said no, they could have all hated it. And instead, so far there’s a wait list and they’ve all been so helpful.” Homeowners who agree to host a garden must also sign a maintenance contract with the Pollinator Pathway organization. This includes watering during dry spells and weeding.
Bergmann created a plant list for the gardens using many native plants that would provide food and habitat for pollinators, allowing them to do what they do best: transfer reproductive material from one plant to another, helping them replicate. But she wanted to make the gardens enjoyable for people, which meant choosing plants humans like, too.
Bergmann’s a realist, after all. Society and nature must co-exist, she says, so the gardens are not meant to shut out human visitors. This vision means the gardens are also something of an art installation, a floral flourish to break up the concrete; in fact, Bergmann’s work on the Pollinator Pathway earned her a 2012 Genius Award for Art from The Stranger.
The project’s progress is largely dependent on donations, so Bergmann plants only as many gardens as the organization can afford with the donations it brings in. So far that’s meant planting about four gardens a year. The gardens themselves are built in a two-part process: First, they are sheet mulched in spring to decompose the underlying grass, which takes six to eight months to die off. Then, volunteers plant the gardens in fall.
The project caught the attention of Woodland Park Zoo entomologist Erin Sullivan, who last year walked the pathway to survey its pollinator activity. She photographed four species of bumblebees, plus honeybees and other pollinators, and noted which plants they visited. She’ll survey again starting this spring to see how things have changed as the gardens mature.
Sullivan was drawn in by the seemingly magnetic nature of the project, in the same way homeowners and a growing list of volunteers and donors have been attracted. Not unlike bees to a flower.
“I think it is a great idea to turn unusable landscape, such as lawns, into pollinator friendly gardens,” Sullivan says. “It is also engaging the people in the neighborhood and helping the people of Seattle learn more about the pollinators in their back yard and what they can do to help them.”
A great idea, sure, but will the project make a systemic difference as Bergmann hopes—and as the pollinators so desperately need? She was quick to respond in the affirmative.
“Of course it will make an impact. It’s pretty one to one. You plant a flower, a pollinator will come,” she says. “Is my single Pollinator Pathway going to solve the pollinator crisis? Of course not. But as a model, I think it’s a very good one.”
To donate or volunteer, visit PollinatorPathway.com.
Megan Hill is a writer and local food fiend who is thankful for the birds and bees. Check out her column on farmers and fishers in The Seattle Weekly, and visit her website at MeganHillFreelanceWriter.com.
Sidebar: Seed Bombing
Seed bombs are a kid-friendly gardening project and a great way to help pollinators. The wads of clay and seeds can be tossed into hard-to-reach spots in your garden, or launched into barren landscapes guerilla gardening-style.
To make a seed bomb, mix clay soil or all-natural air dry craft clay with compost and flower seeds in a 5-1-1 ratio. The best seeds to use are pollinator-friendly wildflowers such as bee balm, yarrow, columbine, poppy, hyssop, larkspur, daisy, snapdragon, and alyssum. Add a few drops of water, just enough to moisten the mixture for forming. Knead the ingredients into grenade-size balls and let them dry before tossing.
If making your own seems like more than you can tackle, you can find complete seed bomb kits through early summer at Whole Foods Markets in Washington.
Sidebar: Western Washington’s Top 5 Plants for Pollinators
***Lupine: There are several types of native lupine, including the Nootka Lupine, a favorite of the Pollinator Pathway gardens. Their blue flowers attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.
***Tiger Lily: The native plant produces striking yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds, and bees, and is a favorite of the Pale Swallowtail butterfly.
***Red Columbine: This native plant thrives in gardens of mixed sun and shade and attracts bees, hummingbirds, and Swallowtail butterflies.
***Trillium: The plant does well in shade. Its white flowers are great for attracting honeybees.
***English Lavender: Though nonnative, lavender is a favorite among Northwest gardeners and attracts bees and the Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.