A pop of color at the foot of a bridge draws attention away from the other flora on display at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. A spray of small, daisy-like flowers shine their cheerful yellow heads toward the sky.
Lower your face to the blooms and you’ll catch a rich, sweet scent.
These “chocolate daisies,” as they are commonly called, are one of a dozen native plant species that participants of a project to increase pollinator habitat in Santa Fe will receive in a free kit designed to attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.
The Xerces Society, a national conservation organization behind the Santa Fe Pollinator Trail Project, plans to give out 350 kits to city residents this summer. Each will contain 33 seedlings that will take up about the same amount of space as one parking spot once fully grown.
“As Santa Fe developed, we’ve removed a lot of old pollinator habitat that did exist and we replaced it with roads, other impervious surfaces, buildings….All of that loss creates a big gap in where pollinators can move and use spaces,” says Kaitlin Haase, southwest pollinator conservation specialist at the Xerces Society.
She says the goal of the Pollinator Trail Project is to establish multiple patches of habitat throughout the city that will allow pollinators to move safely across the urban landscape.
“This project is about improving connectivity and creating a network of different trails and paths that pollinators can use throughout the city,” she says.
It can be easy to overlook the significance of these tiny creatures, but we would be hard-pressed to survive without them. Pollinators are considered a “keystone” category of species because they are essential for plant reproduction and therefore for the survival of many of Earth’s ecosystems.
“When we are creating more habitat for pollinators, we’re creating more habitat for birds and other animals further up the food chain,” says Sally Maxwell, an education specialist at the Randall Davey Audubon Society in Santa Fe.
Humans depend on them as well. According to the US National Forest Service, they pollinate a third of the food we eat.
They can also help those of us who’ve forgotten how to socialize after a year in isolation fend off the panic of having nothing to talk about at upcoming summer gatherings. Imagine having a ready-made topic: “Did you know, for example, that bees have such an acute sense of smell that scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory trained them to sniff out bombs?” Then toss in something like: ”Bees have even been trained to detect coronavirus infections.”
Or how about: “Isn’t it amazing that monarch butterflies can accurately navigate across thousands of miles, migrating across the continent each year from northeastern US and Canada to southwestern Mexico and back?”
Presto! Something interesting to talk about that isn’t related to the end of the world.
Though rapid loss of habitat and overuse of pesticides have made many pollinator species vulnerable to extinction, anyone with a green thumb can be part of the solution.
City residents interested in participating in the Santa Fe Pollinator Trail Project have until June 30 to apply for a habitat kit. The seedlings will be ready for distribution in late summer or early fall.
Master Gardener Pamela Wolfe tells SFR that’s the best time to plant the native seedlings so they will be well established by spring.
Santa Fe Extension Master Gardeners is one of several local groups, including the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and the Audubon Society, that have partnered with the Xerces Society to plant demonstration gardens and advise residents on caring for their seedlings.
The pollinator habitat kits are free, but participants are asked to commit to several follow-up activities such as documenting the plants’ growth and the insects they attract over the course of several growing seasons.
Haase says community science initiatives can help scientists learn more about local species that are not well understood—or track the changing migration patterns of monarchs.
“There’s just not a lot of data on insects,” says Haase. “If we have a whole army of people out there collecting data, we can answer a lot more questions and understand what they need so that we can protect and provide that habitat for them.”
Santa Fe is the first city in the US to pilot the Xerces Society Pollinator Trail Project, but Haase says she hopes to expand the program. In the meantime, she says, Santa Fe is a great place to start because it is already a “bee-friendly” city.
In March, the City Council voted to register Santa Fe as a Bee City USA. Municipalities in the program must establish pollinator-friendly policies such as minimal use of pesticides, something Santa Fe has had in place for years.
Cristina Salvador, collections manager with the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, says the most important aspect of a successful pollinator garden is to plant a wide array of native, drought-tolerant species that have coevolved with the insects local to the area.
Gardeners should also leave some old growth or piles of dead leaves to give bees and butterflies a place to shelter and lay eggs.
“You don’t have to have a pristine, tidy garden….It’s OK to let things be a little more natural and wild,” says Salvador.
To apply for a pollinator habitat kit, go to xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/habitat-kits/santa-fe.