Fall is finally here, and with it comes a rush of preparation for the upcoming winter months. As people harvest the last fruits and vegetables from their summer gardens, some bees begin to hibernate and monarchs head south for migration. Unfortunately, spotting these pollinators has become more difficult after severe declines. Their savior may be an unlikely source: our highways.
Bees are responsible for much of our food. A report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 90 percent of wild plants and 75 percent of all food crops rely on animal pollinators to some extent, and bees are considered nature’s best. Kentucky’s own state flower, the Goldenrod, attracts both bees and butterflies to pollinate it when in bloom.
Given the vital role bees play in supporting our food and plant diversity, it is clear that their health affects our health. Yet both native and cultivated honey bee populations have cratered because of habitat loss, pesticides, disease and climate change. The American bumblebee population has dropped nearly 90% and has disappeared across eight states. Beekeepers across the country have reported growing mortality rates in managed colonies, exacerbating concerns over the sustainability of our food production systems.
Bees aren’t the only insects in trouble. Eastern North American monarch butterflies begin their fall migration by flying south to Mexico for overwintering. Taking many different routes, they eventually merge into a single flyway in Central Texas. Future generations might not get to enjoy this animal miracle as populations of eastern monarchs have declined by 85% percent since the mid-1990s. A significant factor in monarchs’ decline is the rapid loss of milkweed, the only food that sustains monarch caterpillars.
To recover, butterflies and bees alike need safe habitats: places they can eat their favorite plants, mate and reproduce, and avoid harmful pesticides.
These prime pollinator habitats are a lot closer to us than we think. State departments of transportation manage an estimated 17 million acres of roadsides. The Monarch and Pollinator Highway Program, authorized in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, targets these roadsides and right-of-ways for the creation of pollinator habitats. The program provides resources for states and Native American tribes to plant and seed native grasses, wildflowers and milkweed. Soon, state departments of transportation will be able to apply for grants to create roadside pollinator habitat – infrastructure for insects.
Though the program’s current funding is small–in 2020 alone, state and local governments spent $204 billion on highways and roads–the impact on our fragile web of life could be huge. Investing $3 million into the program’s funding, and eventually the full intended amount of $25 million, would allow more states to establish a thriving network of pollinator wildlife corridors. With more investment, our public lands can support healthier populations of bees, butterflies, songbirds and other wildlife.
The Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves (OKNP) partners with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to protect pollinators like the monarch through habitat restoration of existing grassland remnants along roadsides. While pinpointing high quality habitat suitable for pollinators, botanists found an exciting benefit of the program: the discovery of new species for Kentucky. Last year, OKNP surveyors in Western Kentucky located stone mountain mint (Pycnanthemum curvipes), a globally rare species that was previously not known to occur in Kentucky. That’s not all: Surveyors monitoring roadside habitats have identified at least 70 rare species.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rogers has an opportunity to save Kentucky’s pollinators and those throughout America. By securing a $3 million investment in the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Program, states will be better equipped to create new pollinator havens and connect existing habitats. By planting native plant species, wildflowers and milkweed, we can ensure that the iconic monarch butterfly has a home to reproduce, preserving one of nature’s most beautiful rituals and strengthening our vital connection with the natural world.
Lisa Frank is Executive Director of the Washington Legislative Office of Environment America.