Bee and butterfly communities in roadside habitats: identifying patterns, protecting monarchs, and informing management

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Insect pollinators play a critical role in our natural and agricultural ecosystems. With global pollinator declines and habitat loss, attention has turned to roadside right-of-way lands (ROWs) as potential areas for supporting pollinator populations. Although many roadsides host flowering plants, understanding whether--and under what circumstances--roadsides actually benefit pollinator populations is critical for good conservation decision-making. Through a literature review, we found that pollinator population data (e.g., birth and death rates) are lacking to assess whether roadsides are a source or sink for pollinator populations. However, conscientious management practices, including reduced, well-timed mowing, selective, targeted spraying, and well-placed native plantings can improve roadsides' potential to support robust pollinator populations. Identifying roadside habitat for diverse pollinator communities and imperiled species is essential to prioritize pollinator-focused management practices across ROW systems. To support efforts to conserve monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), we surveyed 1,465 km (910 miles) of southern Idaho highways, mapping 1,363 patches of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), the monarch's host plant. Roadside milkweed often bordered irrigated fields and crops; water availability may best explain its distribution. Existing statewide milkweed models (Svancara et al., 2019) did not effectively predict milkweed distribution in ROWs, suggesting the importance of roadside-specific factors, such as ROW management and disturbance history. To identify patterns of pollinator richness and abundance in Idaho ROWs, we surveyed butterflies and sampled bees at a randomized set of 63 100-meter (328-foot) roadside transects in southeastern Idaho, stratified by highway class and NDVI (greenness) category. Lower NDVI (less green) sites, those with more flowering plant species, and sites along smaller, less-trafficked highways supported significantly more species of bees, while ROWs with more abundant flowers were associated with more species of butterflies. Low NDVI sites were often characterized by native sagebrush plant communities, while sites of high NDVI were associated with high proportions of non-native plants, suggesting that NDVI might be useful both in predicting bee richness and abundance (low values) and locating developing noxious weed patches (high values). These results, together with our management recommendations, can help prioritize ROWs for pollinator protection and increase their capacity to support diverse pollinator communities.




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