A small group of people crouched in the dirt last Saturday morning in Middletown, forming a loose circle around the town’s newest native pollinator garden.
The garden — which boasted neat rows of milkweed, goldenrod, black-eyed Susans and other plants by about 10 a.m. — is Middletown’s first finished project as a Bee City USA, a designation the town earned last year. All the new plants are native to the region and designed to create a safe habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Such creatures are responsible for reproducing almost 90 percent of the world’s flowering plant species and one in every three bites of food we consume, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which runs the Bee City USA program.
Across the country, though, pollinators are severely threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use and disease.
“Without the pollinators, our life is going to change drastically,” said Agnes Anne Danehey, a member of Middletown’s Green Team and a leader on the garden project.
After two separate “plant-a-thons,” Danehey and other volunteers had introduced more than 800 native plants to Middletown’s Memorial Park. And they’re already making plans for the next garden.
Recently, native plantings have gotten so popular that a lot of the species the team had originally planned on purchasing were sold out at local nurseries, said Pam McDonald, another Green Team member.
“We really wanted to get something in the ground this spring,” McDonald said, “so we kind of had to make do with what we could get from the nurseries.”
The town cleared the space, laid the mulch and paid for the plants. It will keep up with the watering, too, while volunteers will be responsible for weeding.
Among the planters Saturday were the Wagner kids — 10-year-old Quinn, 8-year-old Rhys and 4-year-old Sam. The family’s home borders nearby Richland Golf Club, and they’ve taken to raising monarch butterflies using the milkweed that grows on the rough, said the kids’ mom, Erin Carney.
Last summer, the family raised and released 145 monarchs. It’s a meaningful contribution, given that scientists estimate their numbers in the eastern U.S. have dropped by 80 percent since the mid-1990s.
The project is a family affair, Erin added: Quinn, in particular, has latched on to the insects, and her dad, Adam, has cut trapped caterpillars out of their chrysalises with tweezers. At 3, Sam had already learned to identify certain plants by the shape of their leaves.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Erin said.
The volunteers have other projects in mind, said Mark Carney, chair of the town’s planning commission and grandfather to the monarch-raising Wagner kids. Their ideas range from building stormwater management ponds to implementing pest management plans aimed at limiting the town’s use of herbicides and pesticides.
They hope the new pollinator garden will inspire those who visit implement pollinator-friendly practices in their own lives.
“People can come out and see it, and get ideas for their own home,” McDonald said. “You don’t have to do something huge — you can do something small.”