Written by Candy Sarikonda, Monarch Conservation Specialist and Wild Ones Member.
If you’ve driven along Ohio’s roadsides lately, you may have noticed something’s different. Less of the roadside is being mowed, and milkweed and other native wildflowers are flourishing in those areas. Maybe you’ve noticed a few more butterflies than usual too. It has been a good year for monarchs in Ohio, and thanks to the hard work of the Ohio Department of Transportation to preserve and create habitat, monarchs have found additional refuge on the roadside.
ODOT has a long history of working to beautify Ohio’s roadsides. In the past, sunflowers and pine trees were planted along roadsides. This program has since evolved as ODOT team members have come to recognize the importance of protecting monarch butterflies and other pollinators. ODOT has formed a Pollinator Habitat Team, consisting of individuals from the ODNR Division of Wildlife, Toledo Zoo, Pheasants Forever, Monarch Watch, Wild Ones, Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists and ODOT district representatives. The volunteer team has been working to identify roadside sites which serve as quality monarch habitat, and have begun reduced mowing programs at these sites. The team has also taken their efforts a step further, by identifying areas in every county to create roadside pollinator habitat. These areas are being prepped and planted with a native seed mix. The goal is to create habitat that will support monarchs, bees and other beneficial insects.
In Ohio, farmers rely on pollinators to produce more than 70 crops, including apples, strawberries and pumpkins. These pollinators have experienced steep declines. According to a study by Koh et al. native bee abundance declined across 23% of the U.S. land area between 2008 and 2013. The study also showed that areas highly dependent on pollinators for crop production do not have abundant pollinator numbers. Researchers concluded this trend may increase costs for U.S. farmers and may even destabilize crop production over time.
It is important to recognize that most pollinators live close to their food sources. Supplying pollinators with habitat near our croplands, which are commonly surrounded by roadsides, is beneficial to pollinators and can help farmers. These habitats can also act as wildlife corridors, connecting other habitat areas. Since Ohio has over 19,000 miles of roadsides, ODOT is well positioned to make a significant contribution to pollinator habitat creation throughout the state.
Of course, driver safety continues to be of utmost importance to ODOT, so maintaining clear zones and open lines of sight are priorities. ODOT expects that reducing mowing will decrease costs related to fuel, personnel hours working with vegetation and chemicals; improve worker safety by requiring fewer maintenance crews on roadsides; help reduce snow drift; and improve plant diversity and abundance at existing habitat sites.
ODOT is already seeing the benefits of their reduced mowing program in terms of monarch abundance. Zack Wertz of ODOT has been documenting monarch activity at roadside sites. He photographed 5th instar monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed in 4 counties, at sites that would have normally been mowed over the summer. Wertz stated, “In just one year, we have already seen the benefits of our reduced mowing program. It really is helping monarchs.” The ODOT District 6 Office team restored two office flower beds with native wildflowers, including 150 milkweed stems. They have been observing monarch caterpillars, and just tagged their first adult monarch. A male, named AJ DOT 6, was tagged and released by planning and environmental staff on August 28th at the ODOT District 6 office in Delaware, Ohio.
Congratulations ODOT! And thank you for your efforts to create monarch habitat so that future generations will continue to enjoy this iconic butterfly.
If you too would like to thank ODOT, please send a note to the appropriate district administrator, you can find their contact information here.
Insu Koh, Eric V. Lonsdorf, Neal M. Williams, Claire Brittain, Rufus Isaacs, Jason Gibbs, and Taylor H. Ricketts (2015) Modeling the status, trends, and impacts of wild bee abundance in the United States http://www.pnas.org/content/113/1/140
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this email does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo by Zachary Wertz of ODOT.