Pollinators: Steps to take at home or on the farm to help save them

Wisconsin State Farmer
Pollinators are animals including bees, butterflies, flies, moths and birds, that help plants reproduce by transferring pollen. Many native plants, as well as many food crops in Wisconsin, rely on pollinators. Once widespread throughout the eastern half of the U.S., the rusty patched bumble bee is now federally endangered and found in only a few locations, many of which are here in Wisconsin.

MADISON - Pollinators are critical for Wisconsin ecosystems and crops including cranberries, peppers and tomatoes. Many pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths are in decline and their losses threaten Wisconsin wildflowers, ecosystems, agricultural crops, and natural areas which depend upon them. 

A pollinator is any animal that visits flowering plants and transfers pollen from flower to flower, aiding plant reproduction. In Wisconsin, native pollinators include bees, butterflies, moths, flower flies, beetles, wasps, and hummingbirds. Populations of some pollinators in Wisconsin, including several bumble bees and butterflies, are declining and habitat loss is one of the major causes.

As native vegetation is replaced by roadways, manicured lawns, crops and non-native gardens, pollinators lose food and nesting sites necessary for their survival. Migratory pollinators, such as monarchs, face special challenges. As the distance between the suitable habitat patches along their migration route increases, more individuals may die during their journey.

Monarchs aren’t the most efficient pollinators but they are iconic ambassadors and the habitat that benefits them benefits all pollinators. Monarchs arriving in Wisconsin in May are the offspring of a "super generation" that migrates to central Mexico and winters on mountaintops where the cool climate slows their metabolism. They leave in March for warmer climates like Texas, where they mate and lay eggs on milkweed plants. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars, which gorge on milkweed before forming a chrysalis and transforming into adult butterflies. These are the butterflies which fly on to Wisconsin and other eastern states to breed.

Without pollinators, Wisconsin cranberry growers would lose three-quarters of their crop, apple growers would lose 80 percent, and cherry growers would lose 60 percent. In 2015, that would have added up to a whopping $134 million loss, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

"It's all hands-on deck for pollinators," says Owen Boyle, who leads the Department of Natural Resources' species management section. "Our native pollinators are incredibly important to maintaining Wisconsin's native ecosystems and agriculture, and we can all take steps to help them."

"People can plant native milkweed and nectar plants, take it easy on mowing and pesticide use, and get involved in volunteer monitoring to help collect information on where pollinators live and their abundance.

"Even if you live in an apartment and you have a balcony, you can grow flowers that provide food for pollinators."

General best management practices for pollinators and aimed at farmers, homeowners with lawns and gardens, beekeepers and right-of-way managers, are found in the Wisconsin Pollinator Protection Plan developed in 2015 and led by DATCP.

Globally, somewhere between 75 percent and 95 percent of all flowering plants — some 180,000 species in all and 1,200 crops — need pollinators to help reproduce, according to the Pollinator Partnership, the organizer of the awareness week. Many of these flowering plants feed other wildlife and support healthy ecosystems that clean the air and stabilize soils, Boyle says.

Exciting public and private efforts are underway to help pollinators, including a Wisconsin effort bringing together diverse interests to create and carry out a statewide habitat restoration plan for monarchs, Boyle says.

While monarchs are not the most efficient pollinators, monarch habitat benefits for other more efficient pollinators as well, like bees. Many habitat and other efforts by Wisconsin governments, nonprofits and utilities on behalf of monarchs are listed in the Wisconsin chapter, pg. 243, of the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy.

Other ways Wisconsin residents can help pollinators is by participating in citizen-based monitoring projects to help collect information about the location and abundance of Wisconsin's pollinators including bumble bees, Karner blue butterflies and monarchs, Boyle says.

Find more information and sign up for free email or text updates to get videos, photos, plant lists on the DNR website,, by searching keyword "Pollinator."