Citywide pollination project creates a ‘buzz’ in Johnson City

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Concerned with the disappearance of bees and other pollinators from their community, one Tennessee city and its local university have stepped up to make pollinators feel more at home.

While bees are the most common creatures associated with pollination, populations of butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, moths, and even bats also contribute to the pollination of plants. Approximately one in three food crops and three-fourths of the earth’s flowering plants require pollinators, according to Dr. Ingrid Luffman, a faculty member with the East Tennessee State University Department of Geosciences.

“A wide variety of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and moths, is essential to sustaining agricultural yields and maintaining a healthy ecosystem,” Luffman said. “Eighty percent of the world’s flowering plants depend upon pollination to reproduce, including one-third of our food, such as apples, pumpkins, almonds, blueberries, watermelon, broccoli, coffee, and more.”

But habitat loss, parasites, pesticides, and other threats have drastically decreased pollinator populations worldwide. The amount of monarch butterflies has decreased 90 percent in the past 20 years. Bee populations have declined by about half in the past 10 years and, despite posting a 3 percent increase in population last year, are still facing dangers from bee-killing mites and colony collapse.

Bees and pollinators have been an important area of study for members of ETSU Biology Department. With the decline in pollinators, officials with the university decided to focus their expertise in their own backyard. Together, the university’s Center for Community Outreach and departments of art and design, geosciences, sociology and anthropology, and sustainability came together to form the ETSU Pollination Project.
Sensing the issue was bigger than the university itself, ETSU’s Center for Community Outreach also contacted Johnson City officials in 2016 with an idea to involve the city and local residents, as well as students, professors, and faculty members in the project.

Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the partnership between ETSU and the city spawned the “What’s the Buzz” community education series in 2016 as well as other pollinator-friendly activities citywide. The series was kicked off in May of that year with Buzzfest, a downtown event that brought together 28 downtown businesses, ETSU, and city officials to promote pollinator-friendly gardens and products, crown a local Bee Queen, and educate the public about the project.

At the same time, Johnson City was working on two new park projects. The result was a city-wide pollination corridor that stretches from ETSU’s campus to downtown Johnson City.

“We were already building walkways around the creek that runs past ETSU and into downtown,” Pindzola said. “We were also in the process of building some parks downtown. During the midst of these projects, the idea of pollination came from ETSU. Most of the plants they have planted at ETSU are pollination plants, and they were already pursuing planting pollinator vegetation. They encouraged us to do the same at Founders Park and King Commons, so now we have two five-acre parks with pollination plants.”

The pollination theme carried over into the design of King Commons Park.
“We kept asking people for a theme, and the one they kept coming back to was pollinators,” Pindzola said. “Elements of the park deal with environmental issues. We have a mural painted by a man from Asheville that depicts all kinds of plant and wildlife. We had the Memphis Metal Museum install railings with pollination type plants in their design.”

In addition to providing pollinator-friendly plants in public spaces, Pindzola said Johnson City also passed an ordinance that allows for backyard beekeeping. Citizen involvement was also encouraged throughout the project, especially at the garden planted at the city library.
“It is good for the community as a whole when citizens get involved in sustainable practices,” he said. “The library was a nice project. People raised money, in-kind contributions, and gave their time. The library sits right at King Common, and it has a much better presence in the community today than it did five years ago. Volunteers worked at various parks around the community to continue the theme of pollination.”
Beyond the benefits of bringing pollinators to live in Johnson City, Pindzola said the project has brought the university and the city together.
“Anytime you have university and a community working together on a project it’s a good thing for the community,” he said. “It’s a good thing for each entity, but it’s great for the community as a whole. That is a big change for us from say 20 or 30 years ago. Anytime we can partner with ETSU we try to. Their current administration is really in touch with working with the community, coming up with great projects that are good for everyone.”

Luffman said the project has involved local residents from all walks of life to make pollinators a part of the community.
“On a local level, business owners, campus departments, residents, and local and state government are invited to support pollinators by planting wildflowers, using native plants for landscaping, and providing clean water sources,” she said. “Together, ETSU and Johnson City have taken steps on campus, in city parks, and in cultivated public areas to strengthen and support these beneficial insects and the delicate web that sustains us all.”

Activity with the What’s the Buzz is still going on in Johnson City two years later with information and education sessions being hosted at local venues and community centers, community gardening and planting sessions, and promoting events by local beekeeping associations.
Cities across the nation have joined Johnson City in providing spaces for pollinators to flourish. Since 2015, more than 700,000 pollinator gardens have been designed, planted and registered across the United States.

Mary Phillips, senior director at the National Wildlife Federation, is among many encouraging cities and other entities across the country to become part of the National Pollinator Garden Network. As part of National Pollinator Week, June 18-24, the organization is hoping to reach 1 million bee-friendly gardens.

“One thing is clear: Americans love pollinators and their efforts are paying off,” Phillips said. “Research in recent articles, such as the Journal of Applied Ecology, have shown that even small gardens can make a difference for pollinators by increasing diversity of bee species across urban and suburban landscapes. Anyone can plant for pollinators and join this effort to reach one million. Every habitat of every size counts, from window boxes and garden plots to farm borders, golf courses, school gardens and more. Anticipation is growing across the National Pollinator Garden Network’s 50 conservation, garden trade, voluntary civic and federal partners, as we rally to get the remaining gardens registered.”
To learn more about National Pollinator Week or register a pollinator garden, visit pollinator.org/mpgcmap/.