Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meadow Diversity in Action

As the summer progresses, more and more observation in the VINS meadow is adding our understanding of the processes and creatures behind its beauty. By next year we will be able to watch how controlled burns and mowing effects the meadow and its inhabitants. While waiting on those findings, a few nuances in the data are already starting to tell a story of intricate natural relationships.

One of these findings comes from a careful record of pollinator and flowering activity. Every two weeks the kinds of pollinators visiting VINS and the kinds of flowers that they are visiting are documented. So far, peak blooming times (high numbers of open flowers) correspond to large numbers of pollinators out to taste all of the sweet nectar. This relationship isn’t surprising at all – more flowers mean more pollinators. However, it is in the way pollinators and flowers support each other in different parts of the meadow that is even more intriguing.

In June a peak lupine bloom in a section of meadow dominated by wildflowers attracted a variety of pollinators but as lupine started to go to seed in early July, the pollinators started to leave for other parts of the meadow. It turns out that wildflowers like Cow Vetch, Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil, St. Johnswort and Daisy Fleabane were all blooming together in another part of the VINS meadow mostly covered in grasses. As the bounty here started to run out, a spectacular bloom of Wild Bergamot again attracted pollinators back to the area of meadow dominated by wildflowers. In a way, the grass dominated portion of the meadow “filled in” as a main pollinator food source while flowering was down in the portion dominated by wildflowers.

What this means is that pollinators benefit from differences within and around the meadows they live in. The fancy terms that ecologists like to use to describe variety of habitat is “heterogeneity” – just meaning: different. And it doesn’t just apply to pollinators and flowers. More heterogeneity means more opportunities for all kinds of plants and animals – almost like a downtown with lots of different shops and shows; there’s a little something for everyone.   

As a matter of fact, VINS is currently taking part in the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), which uses habitat heterogeneity as a method to benefit all kinds of species – from birds to insects and wildflowers. As a part of the USDA, the Vermont Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) utilizes WHIP across the state to help landowners like VINS manage for wildlife in a responsible way. It is nice to know that a variety of species in the meadow already benefit from the diversity of others around them.  

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