Citizen Science

Atlanta Residents Welcome Pollinators to their Urban Gardens

Devon Merriman
April 26th, 2018 at 12:30PM

Students planting a pollinator garden
Students of GAPP planting a pollinator garden.

The next time you bite into a juicy pear, you can thank the bees buzzing outside; 35% of the world’s crop production depends on pollinators like birds, bees, bats, and butterflies. 

But pollinator populations are declining, especially in and around cities. In the greater Atlanta area, the housing boom of the 1990s and the early 2000s replaced approximately 400,000 acres of pollinator habitat with residences and lawns (leading to an increase in pesticide use, which kills pests along with beneficial bugs). To address drastic declines in pollinator populations, scientists and conservationists have been finding ways to grow pollinator-friendly sites in urban areas.   

Cue GAPP, or the Greater Atlanta Pollinator Partnership—a Forest Service collaboration designed to foster pollinator habitat in the region. The project encourages citizens to be friends to pollinators by planting native species and establishing community gardens in their neighborhoods and schools.  

“It started in 2009 when the Regional Forester said she wanted a pollinator garden in Atlanta,” said Dennis Krusac, coordinator for both NatureWatch and Pollinator Conservation in the U.S. Forest Service, Region 8. “So I went home and sat down with my wife, [Jackie Belwood], who’s a Ph.D. Entomologist, and we got out our computers along with a bottle of wine. And in a couple of hours, we came up with the conceptual framework for a 1.2-million-acre pollinator conservation project.”  

A monarch caterpillar feasting on the common milkweed plant.
A monarch caterpillar feasting on the common milkweed plant, Asclepias syriaca.

That area includes all major public lands in metropolitan Atlanta and thousands of individual residences. GAPP informs those residents about which plants are pollinator-friendly.  

“Even if you’re on the 20th floor of a condo in Atlanta, you can still have a pollinator garden if you have a balcony,” he said. “And if you’re going to plant a garden anyway, let’s have you plant the right things.”  

For a pollinator garden to do its job, its winged guests need two things: a food source and opportunities to reproduce in a pesticide-free environment. GAPP’s website provides information on what to plant and how to cultivate a habitat for pollinator reproduction.  

Milkweeds, for instance, are the only plants on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Native milkweeds, and thus monarchs, have been negatively affected by human development throughout North America, including Atlanta. Planting native milkweed species such as Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias incarnata provides excellent caterpillar host plants, and nectar plants for adult butterflies as they stop in Atlanta to breed in early spring. These flowers also produce abundant nectar over a long period of blooming, feeding a diverse array of pollinating insects. 

Along with providing educational resources, the GAPP website, http://gapp.org/, allows residents to add their garden to a crowdsourced map that shows how pollinator habitat is increasing every year. To date, more than 300 pollinator gardens have been registered. 

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A still of the Atlanta Pollinator Map where residents can chart their pollinator gardens (http://map.gapp.org/#/)

The Forest Service project has partnered with schools, such as Georgia State University, and organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Once like-minded organizations spread the word to their members, many more became involved. Community and school gardens started to spring up, bringing promising sights along the way.  

“We have done some work with Truly Living [Center for Natural Urban Agriculture]; I helped them with a pollinator summer camp for kids a couple of years ago,” said Dennis. “And we observed an American bumble bee—which is an uncommon and declining species—in the heart of downtown Atlanta, surrounded by a sea of concrete. It was in this little 3-acre oasis.” 

GAPP also inspired the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to design their own system of mapping and educating the public about pollinator gardens. They call their project CHAPP, or the Chattanooga Area Pollinator Partnership. 

You can do your part by participating in GAPP or similar stewardship projects in your community. Learn more about pollinators and how to help them at USFS PollinatorLive or Xerces.org