The City of Boulder is enlisting Boulderites for the second year of its Pollinator Advocates training, a program trying to protect native insects and birds while fighting climate change — but time is running out to apply.
The training, running from May to late August, will provide classroom learning on what pollinators need to thrive in Boulder, as well as field work. Applications are due May 3, 2023.
Central to the program — which is part of the Cool Boulder initiative and is accepting 20 applicants — is the idea that native insects need certain plants to survive. In recent years, with city lawns and gardens filled with non-native plants, those insects are dwindling. So are the birds that eat them.
“Boulder’s urban setting, as in urban settings across the country, has become completely bereft of native habitat that our insects and song-birds recognize,” said Andrea Montoya, who leads the program. “Everything is covered in concrete, with row after row of lawns covered in Kentucky bluegrass. There’s no place for these insects to find a home.”
Montoya, who contracts as an urban biodiversity coordinator for the city, said a goal of the program is to bring back the grasses, shrubs and trees that insects have evolved with over millennia — and that have gone missing in Boulder. An added benefit is that these same plants trap carbon in the soil, preventing it from escaping back into the atmosphere to heat the climate even more.
“A garden full of tulips isn’t going to cut it,” she said.
Montoya, who has a background in oncology but pivoted into ecology with a focus on the study of insects, began planting pollinator-friendly plants in her Goss Grove neighborhood in 2018, after learning about the loss of native bees. Recognizing that bees need patches of habitat within flying distance of each other, Montoya began looking near her home for areas to add plants that would allow native insects to navigate through the urban landscape. (Montoya said Boulder has more than 900 species of bees, different than honeybees that were introduced in the 1600s.)
“I saw these empty patches of neglected parks and roadways where we could potentially build connected habitat, where these little creatures could fly the 100 to 200 feet they’re capable of flying,” she said.
But in pulling together community members to help her with the project, she realized training was necessary. Now, having created the Pollinator Advocate program in partnership with the city, Montoya isn’t alone in her teaching. She’s getting help from local scientists and ecologists with expertise in the area. They include: Amy Yarger, an entomologist and the director of horticulture for the Butterfly Pavilion, and Kristine Johnson, a soil microbial ecologist.
“It’s a super unique opportunity that the city is providing for free,” said Hannah Davis, a Boulder resident who took the course last year. “The teachers are super knowledgeable.”
Davis said having a way to take individual action to combat climate change — even something as small as planting native species that will sequester carbon and feed local pollinators — felt good. She said the community aspect was an added benefit.
“It was nice to do something in person after years of Zoom,” she said.
Using what she learned from the program, Davis is in the process of switching her plants over to native species — except for a small vegetable garden. And when she has questions, she’s still able to tap into the expertise of her cohort who went through the program with her.
“What’s nice about the pollinator training is it didn’t really end when it ended,” she said, mentioning an online forum where graduates still interact. “The community is still there.”
That community is made up of beginners, as Davis describes herself, and experts. It’s also made up of homeowners and renters, something Montoya wanted to highlight.
“I’m working very hard to share this work in our socioeconomically challenged communities,” she said. “People who don’t have yards, people who live in mobile homes or apartments with balconies, can also learn to plant these plants and serve the pollinators as well.”
Montoya said she was wary of the pollinator pathways initiative becoming a “class-dividing issue,” where those able to buy a home with a yard can participate to the exclusion of everyone else.
“I don’t want this to come across as just a white, upper-middle-class, ‘I have a yard’ type of project,” she said. “We have people across socioeconomic and racial lines who are a part of this.”
Though the program is free, it does have significant time commitments, so Montoya encourages those interested to read the informational webpage carefully before applying. Applications are due May 3, 2023.