Roadside Vegetation Study Could Help Future Generations of Pollinators around the Country

(April 15, 2016)  Just in time for Earth Day, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration (SHA) is launching a study with the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Entomology Department in the School of Agriculture on creating bee and butterfly friendly habitats through roadside vegetation management best practices.  The three-year field study led by PhD student Lisa Kuder started early in April.  

“There is growing consensus that the decline in pollinator health is caused by many different, sometimes interacting factors.  This means the solution also needs to include multiple approaches,” said Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp from University of Maryland’s Bee Lab.  “This partnership is an excellent example of the multifaceted approach needed to help preserve Maryland pollinators.”

According to a February 2016 scientific report released by the United Nations, 40 percent of worldwide invertebrate (no spine) pollinator species, including bees and butterflies, are facing extinction.  The same report concludes that 16 percent of vertebrate (spine) pollinators such as species of bats and birds are also facing extinction.

SHA and UMD are using seven roadsides, five in Frederick County (along US 15 and MD 194), one in Carroll County (MD 194 in Taneytown) and one in Talbot County (MD 33) as testing areas to strike a balance between maintaining roadsides while propagating native Maryland meadows, which naturally attract key pollinators.  The goal of the study is to compare the effects of two different cost-effective meadow management strategies (Integrated Vegetation Management and reduced mowing) on plant and pollinator communities. The study will include measuring abundance and species diversity, evaluating nesting opportunities for both ground and cavity nesting bees and assessing quality and availability of nectar and pollen.

“SHA has more than 5,200 miles (measuring down the center) of roads – creating more than 10,000 miles of roadsides to maintain,” said SHA Administrator Gregory C. Johnson, P.E.  “It makes sense to use these areas to support pollinator habitats.”

(SHA photo:  Monarch Butterfly on a swamp milkweed in an SHA-created wetland.)

Results from this study will improve understanding of roadside ecosystems, as well as provide state transportation agencies with data needed to create effective, thoughtfully designed meadows on a more expansive scale.  Some native species include milkweeds, black-eyed Susans, golden rods, asters and various native grasses.

Since 2008, SHA has significantly reduced seasonal mowing by nearly 500 acres (495.6) across Maryland. This is accomplished by allowing native grasses and plant species to grow with reduced mowing. Mowing is generally done at the end of the growing season in fall.

Local, state and the federal government are investigating measures to enhance pollinator habitats.  There also are measures citizens can take to help attract valuable pollinators.

Homeowners can offer tremendous benefits by making minor changes to their landscape routine.  Some of these changes include converting a small patch of lawn to a naturalized area so wildflowers can flourish.  Home gardeners are encouraged to use natural pest control such as praying mantises and ladybug beetles rather than pesticides.  Restoring quality forage throughout the landscape will help support honeybees, monarchs and the other 425 bee species found in Maryland.

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