Creating an Oasis for Pollinators

Aug 24, 2018

Pollinators have come under threat in recent years and many people in the Northwoods are responding by creating pollinator gardens.

WXPR’s Nora Eckert has the story of one Minocqua family who has gone to especially great lengths to help pollinators thrive.

Valerie Burns’ house is overflowing with life.

Packed with flowers, berries, milkweed and bee houses, Valerie has created an oasis for pollinators within her five-acre plot in Minocqua. In the air, there is a constant buzz from various species of bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and flies that she creates such a welcoming home for.

Valerie says that for the past year, she and her daughter Rachel have dedicated much of their time and energy to creating an environment conducive for these pollinators to thrive. Doing so doesn’t allow for the most manicured lawn, but the Burns family wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Both my husband and I have backgrounds in wildlife and biology,” Valerie says. “We like to see as much in the way of native or wild animals and plants coming in. We like it that way. We’re more apt to let things go and still try to keep a semblance of order to some degree. We like that diversity. We don’t mind the snakes, the bats, the spiders.”

The population of pollinators in Wisconsin has been threatened by habitat loss, with native plants being replaced by non-native plant species, mowed lawns, or roadways.  

Valerie explains the steps she and her daughter Rachel have taken to personally combat pollinator decline.

Credit Nora Eckert / WXPR

“We’re providing them with food, we’re providing them with nesting areas, they’ve got plenty of shelter with the foliage, the wood piles, the shallow drinking water dishes, and lack of pesticides in the form of sprays or liquids that go into the ground.”

They consider everything, down to the point of leaving driftwood in the pond in case pollinators fall in, so they do not drown. Valerie says they are making effort to involve their family members as well.

“I have a feeling there are going to be some family members that get bee houses for Christmas this year!”

This mother daughter duo is part of a larger movement in the Northwoods to combat pollinator decline. In Oneida County, several pollinator gardens are grant funded, with locations at the Healing Nature Center, the Oneida County Courthouse, the Three Lakes Center for the Arts, and the Three Lakes Historical Society.

Even though Valerie acknowledges she cannot change the problem singlehandedly, she believes every little bit helps.

“If you don’t like the situation then you have to be a part of the solution. Regardless of how small that is, you have to help out. There’s no other way. If you don’t like it, change it.”

And for those who want to be a part of the solution, Valerie stresses you do not have to go to great lengths.

“Any little bit helps. If you put up a bee house, great. If you don’t and just have a bunch of flowers, that’s great. The biggest thing is the lack of the use of chemicals, and that’s because it’s so encompassing for so many species, whether it be plants or animals. From birds and butterflies to our own well water, to the plants, it comes full circle. That’s the big powerful thing to me.”

Valerie says her plants grow much better without using any chemicals, and advises natural substitutes, such as vinegar, to get rid of unwanted plants or weeds.

“There are ways to get rid of that rather than spraying the heck out of everything. There’s alternative methods. People always gravitate towards the easiest option and think to reach for whatever is on the shelf at your local store.”

Rachel says she is motivated to help pollinators because she appreciates how important they are for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

“[Pollinator decline] could truly impact how the world works. I guess knowing that I can do my own little part to help is what inspires me.”

Valerie explains why she is so committed to helping pollinators thrive.

“I think there’s a false sense of safety that someone is behind this and can fix it. Or thinking ‘okay so it’s just one bumblebee, there’s 15 other species to take its place.’  That’s a false sense of security. We’re responsible. We’re supposed to be the safe keepers of the land and what’s in it. That’s what drives me.”

Nora Eckert is a journalist from northcentral Wisconsin who will soon be pursuing her masters in journalism at the University of Maryland. 

This story was written and produced by Nora Eckert and edited by Mackenzie Martin. It's part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.