Nurturing birds and bees benefits wildlife, humans

By Dave Carlson
Contributing Writer

Cazenovia, Wis. — “That was corn two years ago,” said Eric Knauf, as he scrolled through his camera’s photo files displaying a field packed with blazing wildflowers and waving grasses. “Give nature a nudge in the right direction … look what can happen. It’s incredible.”

The “nudge” is a relatively small (71⁄2 acres) patch of native prairie Knauf planted amidst a sea of corn and soybeans in southwest Wisconsin to restore base habitat for pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, and beetles and more diverse animal life.

Knauf, 42, a surveyor who bought an 80-acre tract in Richland County in 2013, has joined a growing number of landowners turning to the federal Conservation Reserve Program’s CP42 Pollinator Habitat practice managed by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency, which provides cost-sharing and technical assistance, as well as a sign-up incentive of up to $150 per acre.

Knauf’s property is typical of the Driftless Area, with field-cropped ridgetops, wooded hills, and a small valley bottom creek at the headwaters of Willow Creek near Cazenovia.

“Eric’s project is amazing even into only it’s second growing season,” said Erin Holmes, a USDA Farm Bill and Pheasants Forever biologist in Wisconsin. “The amount of blooms and variety of species is exactly what we plan for, though typically don’t see this early in the establishment period. This can be attributed to the condition of the field prior to seeding and meticulous care Knauf and his wife have put into the planting by mowing and removing weeds whenever possible.”

Knauf, an enthusiastic promoter of CP42, also credits plentiful precipitation in the region for excellent growth. He hired a planting contractor and the first year plants began emerging in rows left by a no-till planter, Knauf said.

“That fall some plants had insignificant blooms and we had to mow it,” Knauf said. “This spring it really exploded.”

To date 907 acres of CRP CP42 program have been established on former cropland in Wisconsin, Holmes said.

“It’s been hugely successful throughout the Midwest and it’s growing in Wisconsin,” she said. “The (USDA’s) Natural Resources Conservation Service also has the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to help establish pollinator habitat.

“Production acres best left for habitat are being enrolled, existing acres in need of improvement are being upgraded and the effects are accumulative,” Holmes said.

Pheasants Forever (PF) and Quail Forever (QF) chapters in Wisconsin and other states and youth groups have taken on pollinator plots projects, committing funding and volunteers, Holmes added.

Pollinators visit flowers in their search for nectar and pollen and unknowingly deposit pollen from a different flower, which the plant uses to produce a fruit or seed. Biologists say many plants cannot reproduce without pollen carried to them by foraging pollinators.

Scientists tell us that 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators and estimate one out of three bites of food humans eat exists because of pollinators.

According to the FSA, bee-pollinated commodities account for $15 billion in annual U.S. agricultural production. Pollinators’ habitat and the number of pollinators have significantly declined due to habitat destruction, disease, parasites, pesticides and environmental contaminants.

“When we go to the property, the first thing we notice is that it changes by the week like a garden, depending on what’s blooming,” Knauf said. “In the morning and evening you hear the humming of insects and see all the birds, turkeys and deer. It’s just amazing.”

“Anytime habitat can be established you are providing soil health and water quality benefits that build the basic premise of the food chain,” Holmes said. “The more flowers, the more insects. The more insects, the more birds, and so on.”

For more information and to plan a pollinator project, contact the USDA, FSA and NRCS or local PF and QF chapters and Farm Bill biologists found on the internet. Knauf has produced a nearly five-minute video “tour” of his property and its splendid array of pollinator-friendly plants that’s posted on YouTube.

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