As students grow milkweed, sunflowers, asters, parsley and other native plants at six schools in Florida, the gardens will help more than the pollinators that depend on the plants for survival.
Without bees, butterflies and other insects, humans won’t survive either. It’s a lesson teachers hope students in Volusia County take with them for life.
“We have to keep pollinators alive or we won’t live,” said Louise Chapman, environmental/STEM resource teacher. “Having pollinator corridors in protected areas will be wonderful.”
The gardens, funded by a grant from Duke Energy, are a chance for students in east-central Florida to literally get their hands dirty.
“We want the students to learn how the natural systems work – that everything goes together,” said Stephen Kintner, retired environmental management director for Volusia County and a volunteer at Lyonia Environmental Center in Deltona. “And we want them to learn respect for the outdoors and wildlife.”
Chapman and Kintner have been teaching about the interdependence of native plants and pollinators for years. Most flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce, and those plants make up about a third of the food that humans eat. But when lands are clear-cut for development and herbicides are used in gardens, Kintner said, pollinators lose their habitat.
Margaret Spontak, stakeholder philanthropy manager for Duke Energy in Florida, said one way to expand spaces for pollinators is to plant them in working lands along utility rights of way, roads, school yards and open spaces.
“Florida is growing like crazy and we’re losing a lot of our wild spaces,” Spontak said. “We want to create an awareness of the importance of pollinators, not just on natural lands and working lands, but in people’s backyards. They’ll not only help our environment. They will actually be less expensive and require less maintenance.”
How Duke Energy supports pollinators
The $30,000 school grant is one of many Duke Energy has made toward improving the pollinator habitats goal across its service areas in the Southeast and Midwest.
There are grant-funded gardens at Seminole State College and a West Volusia Audubon garden at the Sandra Stetson Aquatic Center. The company provided $100,000 over four years to Bok Tower Gardens to help restore sandhill and scrub habitat near power line easements in Orange, Polk and Lake counties, Fla., which are home to the endangered scrub lupine and clasping warea plants.
The company also contributed $173,000 for the University of Florida to research best practices for managing pollinator insect habitats on working landscapes such as rights of way.
The vegetation management team at Duke Energy maintains thousands of miles of power line rights of way. The team clears woody plants that limit access to the poles and thin trees that threaten to fall on the lines. By removing these plants, they make room for tall grasses and flowering plants that benefit pollinators and other animals. These practices improve power reliability and improve crucial habitat corridors for threatened species.
Take milkweed, for example. Monarch butterflies cannot survive without it. When the butterflies migrate north from Mexico, they look for milkweed on which to lay their eggs. The eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars, which grow by eating the milkweed plants. Once fully grown, each caterpillar attaches itself to something – often a stem or leaf in the garden – and transforms into a chrysalis, which, in turn, transforms into a butterfly. The next year, the cycle repeats.
But only if there’s milkweed.
“The monarchs are tied to milkweed,” Kintner said. “That’s why we’re working to restore native plants. There are plants here in Florida that are so hybridized that some insects don’t even recognize them as plants.”
The grant for pollinator gardens in Volusia County schools will not only go toward the cost of new native plant seedlings, but also for shovels, gloves, dirt and other gardening supplies.
Before students began digging, teachers attended a training session.
“They heard from native plant and butterfly experts and brainstormed activities and lesson plan ideas for getting their students excited about this project,” said Stephanie Parks, program coordinator for FUTURES Foundation for Volusia County Schools, which is coordinating with Duke Energy. “Most of the teachers who have signed on to this project are passionate about gardening and will stop by the school periodically over the summer for basic maintenance, but we have also set aside funds for the fall so that teachers can do a refresh as needed.”
Cynthia Ramirez, executive director of FUTURES Foundation, hopes the project instills in students “a lifelong love of gardening and heightened sensitivity to our environment.”
Chapman and Kintner predict it will – one native plant at a time.