Stories of the Land: Pollinators Without Borders

“It helps to tickle the toes,” says Kate Lis as she holds up a milkweed plant and works to loosen up its compact root system fresh out of the plastic planting container. It is a hot, clear day in June and a group of students are gathered around Lis, an AmeriCorps Project Conserve stewardship associate at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, taking note of the planting process.

They eagerly grab their own plants, “tickle the toes”, dig a shallow hole in the soil and plant the small, green, leafy plant in the two pollinator garden beds that Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) has installed at Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville.

CMLC, a nonprofit that permanently conserves, cares for and connects people to the natural wonders of western North Carolina, is working with schools and organizations to plant pollinator gardens in our local community.

“I shy away from calling them pollinator gardens,” says CMLC Land Protection Director Tom Fanslow, “Because they aren’t just for pollinators, they’re for people, too.”

This is evident by the students’ enthusiasm and passion for planting these gardens.

“We need pollinators so the flowers and plants can keep producing and keep making stuff,” says Ella Root, a fourth grader at Isaac Dickson Elementary, as she waters a freshly planted milkweed bed.

“Milkweed is important so the monarch butterflies don’t go extinct," she adds. "It’s the only plant where the monarchs will lay their eggs and that the caterpillars will eat. They lay their eggs on the milkweed and their eggs are like little tiny white dots almost. When they hatch, if there’s nothing for the caterpillar to eat, it’ll die. If it dies, that’s one less of them in the environment.”

Ella is right. And, the monarch’s journey doesn’t stop there. Every fall monarch butterflies in the eastern United States migrate to the oyamel fir forests of the Sierra Madre mountains in central Mexico to stay comfortable through the winter. A monarch butterfly may travel 3,000 miles until it settles in the relief of Mexico.

Monarchs and other pollinators are true heroes of our ecosystem. Butterflies, birds, bees, bats and other animals play a significant role in the production of more than 150 food crops in our country—from almonds, apples and alfalfa to melons, plums and squash. We have pollinators to thank for every three bites of food. They also provide a means for our native plants to reproduce and thrive.

For Nina Veteto, a kindergarten teacher at FernLeaf Charter School in Fletcher and founder of the education and conservation-focused nonprofit Monarch Rescue, it is more about helping kids connect to the monarch in a meaningful way that will ultimately translate into care and concern for the environment.

“We started this monarch project in the fall. We raised the caterpillars, tagged the butterflies (helping to track their long flight south), and released them and the kids were so excited and so engaged,” says Veteto. “What was so great was we were able to reconnect to all that knowledge we had built in the fall through our spring planting partnership with CMLC.”

CMLC donated milkweed, assisted with site prep, and led a discussion with students on the importance of land stewardship at FernLeaf in March. Every grade level and all 170 students had an opportunity to come out and plant.

Within a month, there were eggs on the milkweed. The milkweed leaves were brought into the classroom with eggs scattered on their undersides. Beginning as tiny spheres of life, the caterpillars hatch and grow.

Just like Eric Carle’s classic children’s book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, the caterpillars consume more and more resources as they mature, hungrily gorging on a bounty of milkweed, they take in what they can before it is time to metamorphose. The students observed the transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis (similar to a cocoon) to adult butterfly, again.

“It came through the seasons, full circle in a way that was a very powerful learning experience for the kids,” says Veteto. “A lot of times in schools you teach something and you move on and it doesn’t come up again, but this was just a really neat way to spiral back and see the whole thing happen again in the spring. The kids loved it. They got connected to plants and animals in a profound way that wouldn’t have happened without the partnership with CMLC.”

Lis explains that CMLC’s aim is to weave a big picture understanding of the complexities in our global ecosystem and how humans play a leading role that cannot be ignored. “With enough conservational groundwork, especially with the help of these ecologically-minded schools, these kids can realize their own potential to create sustainable change,” shares Lis.

The intention is to expand from milkweed to a variety of native pollinator plants, so students understand the connection between the pollinators and their evolution with these plants. There are specific pollinators that will only pollinate specific native plants. It is all part of an incredibly fragile web; its stability is threatened by factors like habitat fragmentation and loss, non-native invasive species, pollution, pesticide use and climate change.

“Without pollinators, a lot of plants couldn't really grow and flower and fruit,” says Jacob Portanova, a fourth grader at FernLeaf. “It’s fun because you get to see how it goes from one little seed to huge, huge beautiful flowers. It’s an extension of life. It’s not just cool to watch, it’s helping with the learning environment and you get to see it go through all the stages.”

Partnering with schools is a priority for CMLC. Not only is there a community need, there is underutilized space on school grounds and the opportunity to educate—in a real hands-on way—the importance of pollinators and native plants. Our basic needs are being met as a human race because of these little critters that most of us go through our day without noticing.

“With our food and pollinator crisis in the culture of 2017, we feel that everyone should have access to food and understand more about pollination, and we’re using our school grounds as a demonstration and launching pad for our community to share,” says Joan Pinegar, garden coordinator at Isaac Dickson Elementary.

While Isaac Dickson Elementary has been planting gardens for decades, the partnership with CMLC is new.

“We want to help allied organizations like CMLC, anyone who wants to share food and pollination messages, launch successes through our grounds at our school,” Pinegar says. “It’s important for kids to learn about native plants and pollinators, because they are the ones who will be able to take control of the situation that is dire.

"Climate change, fracking, habitat loss for animals, pollinators declining every year… you could go on and on about the impact of human consumption," she adds. "Our students talk about this every day.”

Pinegar believes opportunity is boundless when schools, local organizations and businesses partner. “It’s just getting folks to understand that we can use school grounds to enhance the classroom and Common Core (educational initiative), and the community as a whole with real tangible projects,” says Pinegar.

CMLC has expanded its pollinator gardens to include a previously unused piece of land adjacent to the Ironwood Square Business Park on Case Street in Hendersonville, where its office is located along with The Free Clinics of Hendersonville and the Children and Family Resource Center.

Fanslow is optimistic about the ability to make a positive impact. “How people manage their backyards can make a world of difference for pollinators, and by adding milkweed next to the patio we can join in helping preserve the 3,000-mile migration of monarch butterflies for our kids."

Please download the current version of Internet Explorer. IE 6 is no longer supported.