Master Gardeners talk pollinators at Penn State's Ag Progress Days

University Park, Pa. — The garden demonstration plots at Penn State's Ag Progress Days, Aug. 17-19 at Rock Springs, will be abuzz this year not just with gardeners championing the importance of pollinators, but with many of the actual pollinators themselves, drawn to the vicinity by the specialized plantings designed to do just that.

Master Gardeners
from across the state will converge on their traditional spot at the foot of 11th Street at the show site to trumpet the message that gardens can be designed to provide food and habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators so essential to the food system. The issue has become even more critical in recent years as populations of native bees and other pollinators continue to plummet.

"We're really talking about gardening for pollinating, by planting flowers to attract pollinators and putting in host plants to have butterflies reproduce in a garden," said Molly Sturniolo, coordinator for Master Gardeners in Centre County. Sturniolo said there will be three large gardens around the display tent, colorful display materials nestled amid pollinator-favored plants throughout the site, plus additional plantings along 11th Street that will feature teaching materials funded by the "Haagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees" program.

Research shows that wild honey bee populations have dropped 25 percent since 1990, and more than 50 pollinator species are either threatened or endangered. Experts say that pollinators promote the survival of 90 percent of the world's flowering species, and are responsible for one out of every three bites of food consumers eat. Pollinators are also essential for the growth of plant fiber used to make clothing and other household goods.

To combat the pressures on these beneficial insects and to help restore populations, Penn State Master Gardeners recommend planting a native garden with diverse and abundant plants that bloom throughout the year. They also advise homeowners to maintain a parcel of wild and undisturbed vegetation, provide sources of water whenever possible, install bee nests, and minimize pesticide use.

Sturniolo, who has been involved with Master Gardeners since 2004, said that their teaching site at Ag Progress Days has continued to evolve over the years. The large Pollination Garden and two additional gardens were planted in July of 2009. Master Gardeners are also working with the Penn State Department of Horticulture to plan site expansion to include trellised fruit trees, handicap-accessible raised beds and bricked walkways. They hope to add a permanent structure to house their APD display and to hold educational workshops on site, she said.

While the primary goal of the display is to encourage everyone to plant gardens that will cater to pollinators, she said they expect to field all kinds of timely questions about horticulture and gardening in general. "We had tomatoes planted in one of the gardens last year, and they were infected with the tomato blight pathogen, so that was a really good teaching opportunity for us. We talked about tomato blight three days straight," Sturniolo said.

Premium ice cream manufacturer Haagen-Dazs has expanded its partnership with Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences to investigate Colony Collapse Disorder, which has mysteriously decimated honey bee colonies across the United States. While Haagen-Dazs has provided more than $200,000 toward graduate education and advanced research at Penn State, part of the "Haagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees" program has also helped fund Penn State's Master Gardener Program.

The program helps teach homeowners and gardeners how to establish local, pollinator-friendly plantings and habitats. Haagen-Dazs also contributed $15,000 to the Citizen-Based Native Bee Survey, an ongoing effort to determine the species and population sizes of native pollinators in Pennsylvania.

"There are more than 400 kinds of native bees in Pennsylvania," Sturniolo said. "We learn the different characteristics of bees to identify them, and then volunteers go out once a month, in the morning and afternoon, and record the pollinators they're seeing." The statewide data is then compiled and reported.

"We feel like we're the first step of citizen scientists," she said."The Haagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees program was a real coup for Master Gardeners to be involved in. I can't tell you how much we've learned about bees and the peril they're in, and all the outreach we’ve done." She estimated that the Master Gardeners received $100 per garden per year, and that although they do everything they can to stretch those dollars, the money is about gone.

"We'll continue our outreach, though," she said. "Every little bit helps."

The Master Gardeners also will present programs in the College Building Theatre throughout the three-day event that runs Aug. 17-19 at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center, nine miles southwest of State College.
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EDITORS: Contact Molly Sturniolo, Centre County Master Gardeners coordinator, at (814) 355-4897 or by e-mail at mas79@psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010