Icy roads and freezing rain couldn’t stop more than 200 people from making their way to the second annual Pollinator PowWow in Austin this weekend. The all-day gathering of pollinator advocates and native plant evangelists gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Saturday for a full day of education, enlightenment and wisdom sharing.
Organizer and moderator Carrie McLaughlin opened the session by explaining the deliberate naming of the event. “A powwow is a gathering of the people to listen to wise words,” she told the packed house, who arrived from five states and 49 Texas counties. “It’s a joining of the tribes to hear the elders speak,” she said.
And so it was. Nine presentations ran like clockwork (well-done, organizers) and about two dozen exhibitors filled the hall frequented by attendees during the breaks.
Michael Warriner, Nongame and Rare Species program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife, kicked off the schedule with a fascinating overview of native bees in Texas. While I consider myself relatively well-informed about pollinators, I learned a lot – like this fun fact: nectar is sugar and pollen is protein. Hadn’t put that one together. Or: not all bees build social hives, many are loners.
Then Rebecca Quiñonez-Piñón stepped up to the mic to share the admirable work of Forests for Monarchs, a nonprofit organization that works with local Mexican populations in La Cruz, Mexico, to reforest the Monarch butterfly roosting sites with native oyamel fir and pine seedlings. As executive director of the organization, Quiñonez-Piñón did an eloquent job explaining the needs of local Mexican people to earn a living and warm their homes in the face of environmental pressures to preserve the forest and the Monarch butterfly migration. “The need for wood is not going to decrease,” she said. Forests for Monarchs has planted 8 million trees since 1997.
Perhaps one of the most entertaining sessions featured Randy Johnson, an Aggie that works overtime as the horticulture manager of the Dallas Zoo and owner of Randy Johnson Organics in Mesquite, Texas.
Johnson charmed the crowd with his deep knowledge and undisputed passion for native plants and disdain for invasive species: “By plane or tractor, it don’t matter,” he said in his deep Southern drawl, offering caution on how unacceptable species and chemicals encroach on the natural world. Johnson compared losing native species to randomly taking parts off a car. “First you lose the visor. Then the door handle,” he said, next thing you know the transmission is out and the car – or the ecosystem – won’t function.
After the lunch break, Dr. Merlin Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International, presented on the importance of bats as pollinators. The unfairly feared, grossly misunderstood creatures are important pollinators of agaves, fruit trees and other plants. They also consume monumental amounts of crop-damaging insects in their night flights. Dr. Tuttle, who continues to speak all over the world on behalf of bats, announced the launch of his new website, www.merlintuttle.org, and the fact that bat photos published there are available to download and use free of charge.
Later in the afternoon, attendees heard about the ecological and pollinating services provided by birds from urban wildlife biologist Brett Johnson of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Shalene Jha, of the University of Texas at Austin’s integrative biology department, explained pollination mutualisms – that is, the interconnectedness of plants with the insects and/or animals that inhabit our various ecosystems.
Those of us with ranch land were intrigued to hear from Ricky Linex, wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service that conversions of ranch or farm land to pollinator habitat might be eligible for various financial and technical assistance programs offered by the state.
In Linex’s session, “Farm Bill Programs for Pollinators,” acronyms ran rampant – EQIP, WHIP, CCRP and many more. I’ll be looking into these. Linex also “unofficially” shared news of a $5 million project for habitat management on grazing lands. “Details are coming soon,” he said.
Finally, Ben Eldredge, Director of Education at the Cibolo Nature Center and Farm in Boerne just outside San Antonio, presented on the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration. Introduced by McLaughlin as “our maverick,” Eldredge focused on how glyphosate – commonly known as Round-Up – contributes immensely to Monarch decline, especially in the midwestern corn belt, and how agricultural practices will need to change if that decline is to stop. The notion can make some agriculture folks – and purveyors of pesticides and the service industry that delivers them – uncomfortable.
“If we’re going to get serious about pollinator conservation, then some agricultural practices are going to have to change and it’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” said McLaughlin by phone after the event.
All that fun for only $25. Feel like you missed out? McLaughlin says plans are already underway for another PowWow in Texas later this year, sometime after June. To tap into pollinator resources, check out the Pollinator PowWow Part2 website.
Have you taken the What Kind of Milkweed Survey?
Help us convince commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed to feed migrating Monarch butterflies and other pollinators by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries. Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey. GRACIAS!
*Featured/top image: Pollen is protein, nectar is carbs–who knew? And bees are master pollinators. Photo via www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov.