UK student plants golf course gardens to increase bee, butterfly populations

During the pollination garden's 2012 blooming season, a coreopsis, left, and a coneflower attracted visitors.
During the pollination garden's 2012 blooming season, a coreopsis, left, and a coneflower attracted visitors.

For Emily Dobbs, it's all about saving butterflies and bees.

Worldwide, the numbers of bees and Monarch butterflies have dropped precipitously in recent years, whether by climate change or habitat loss and fragmentation.

And, "Bees are really critical for food supply," said Daniel Potter, professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky.

Hence the need to cultivate spaces that are friendly to bees and butterflies.

Like golf courses.

Dobbs, a Transylvania University graduate and UK graduate student in entomology, began a project in 2011 to concoct mixes of wildflowers that would attract bees and butterflies. Then, she planted them on six Lexington golf courses.

The effort was the first time that the pollination garden program called Operation Pollinator had been used on North American golf courses.

Said Dobbs: "There's an opportunity to create a sanctuary here."

The golf course projects in Lexington — at Kearney Hills Golf Links, Marriott Griffin Gate, Lexington Country Club, Lakeside Golf Course, University Club Golf Course and UK Spindletop Research Farm — were funded by grants from the United States Golf Association, the Syngenta corporation and the UK Nursery Endowment Fund.

The plots are 20 feet by 200 feet for each of the golf courses. Of the three seed mixes developed, Dobbs said one is for butterflies, two are for bees, and one is a fallow plot that serves as a control spot.

She contacted Applewood Seed, a company in Aurora, Colo., that sells seeds that encourage pollination, to begin customization of a seed mix that would work in Central Kentucky. Almost all perennials, the seed mix is designed to provide visual interest for all seasons.

"You can't just go out in a field and start throwing seeds around," Potter said.

Dobbs uses different techniques to measure success, including number of blooms, "bee bowl" trapping in bright plastic bowls with soapy water, and butterfly nets.

"It's fun to see what shows up," she said.

Operation Pollinator projects began in Great Britain. The idea is to provide scattered pads for bees and butterflies to touch base and gather pollen and nectar. Begun by the Syngenta company, Operation Pollinator is designed to increase the number of pollinating insects by creating specific habits tailored to local conditions.

Bees and Monarch butterflies are particularly endangered. The Genetic Literacy Project estimates that during the past five years, some 30 percent of bees in the United States have disappeared or failed to survive to pollinate blossoms in the spring, about 50 percent more than the rate expected.

Monarch butterflies' migration, from Mexico to the United States and as far north as Canada, is similarly endangered. The World Wildlife Fund announced in March that climate conditions and agricultural practices, in particular the use of herbicides that kill the Monarch's main food source, milkweed, have decimated the numbers of the spectacular orange and black butterflies. In the mountainous fir forest of central Mexico, where the butterflies migrate for winter, there are only one-fifteenth as many butterflies as there were in 1997.

In England and Ireland, where greenskeepers and golf course managers planted the first pollination gardens, it was estimated that converting 1.2 acres of turf to flowers produced the effect of more than 600 golf club members each creating a 43 by 23 foot wildflower garden at home.

The bees drawn by the flowers are harmless, Dobbs said. She worked in the gardens all during 2012 and was never stung.

The project has been met with enthusiasm by the golf courses, many of which have been looking for ways to decrease mowing and lighten the chemical load that traditional golf course maintenance puts on the environment.

Scott Bender, director of engineering and grounds at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort & Spa, said that saying yes to the pollination garden was an easy call. The golf course was already an Audubon Certified Sanctuary, a program administered by Audubon International that helps golf courses enhance their natural areas and wildlife habitats and minimize the potentially harmful effects of the courses' operations.

"We really look at what products we use," Bender said. "We look at toxicity levels. We try to use organic fertilizers."

Golf course management also uses turf species that use less water, Bender said.

The possibilities for other pollinator gardens are nearly endless — on horse farms, school grounds, private homes and even neighborhood parkland, Dobbs said.

For now, Potter said, "The golf course can become an urban sanctuary."

That, Dobbs said, is the first move toward creating "stepping stones" for bees and butterflies throughout Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Frequent questions

Operation Pollinator: What kind of perennials are planted?

UK entomology student Emily Dobbs blended these seed mixtures for use to draw bees and butterflies to Lexington golf courses:

Butterfly mixture: Agastache foeniculum, lavender hyssop; Allium cernuum, nodding pink onion; Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly milkweed; Cassia hebecarpa, wild senna;

Coreopsis lanceolata, lance-leaved coreopsis; Dalea purpurea, purple prairie clover; Desmanthus illinoensis, Illinois bundleflower; Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower,

Eryngium yuccifolium, rattlesnake master; Liatris spicata, gayfeather; Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed Susan; Solidago rigida, rigid goldenrod; Verbena bonariensis, purpletop verbena; Verbena stricta, hoary vervain; Veronicastrum virginicum, Culver's root; Zizia aurea, golden Alexander.

Diverse bee mixture: Agastache foeniculum, lavender hyssop; Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern columbine; Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly milkweed; Coreopsis lanceolata, lance-leaved coreopsis; Coreopsis tinctoria, plains coreopsis; Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower; Echinacea tennesseensis, Tennessee purple coneflower; Eryngium yuccifolium, rattlesnake master; Gaillardia pulchella, firewheel; Helianthus annuus, wild sunflower; Monarda fistulosa, bee balm; Penstemon digitalis, beardtongue; Ratibida columnifera, prairie coneflower; Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan; Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, New England aster; Tradescantia ohiensis, Ohio spiderwort; Zizia aurea, golden Alexander.

Simple bee mixture: Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern columbine; Coreopsis lanceolata, lance-leaved coreopsis; Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower; Monarda fistulosa, bee balm; Ratibida columnifera, prairie coneflower; Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan; Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, New England aster; Tradescantia ohiensis, Ohio spiderwort.