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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Creating a buzz


University of Kentucky graduate student Emily Dobbs monitors an Operation Pollinator plot at the Marriott Griffin Gate Golf Club in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Kentucky.com.Going green has been en vogue in the golf business long before sustainability became a public relations buzzword.
As managed out-of-play areas on courses around the country give way to wild flowers there are more big-picture benefits to going native outside the ropes than just reduced mowing frequency and saving water. Ongoing research at the University of Kentucky shows that establishing the right plantings can help resuscitate dwindling bee and butterfly populations as well, making establishment of wildflowers not only environmentally sound from a turf management perspective, but also a responsible part of any restoration program that includes native areas.
Wildflower areas can help revive dwindling bee populations and also can provide needed sanctuaries for migratory butterfly colonies that are losing habitat for a variety of reasons, according to UK entomologist Dan Potter, Ph.D., and graduate assistant Emily Dobbs, who have adopted a European program aimed at helping these insect populations.
Started in the United Kingdom in 2003, Operation Pollinator involves establishing nectar-producing plants that are beneficial to native bee populations that have been on the decline around the world since the 1990s. 
Potter, recipient of the 2010 USGA Green Section Award, wanted to bring the program to Kentucky, and Dobbs volunteered to make it part of her master's research. What started as a side project for Dobbs has transformed into a passion with plots established at UK's A.J. Powell Research Center as wells as on five golf courses around Lexington.
"It's no longer a side project," Dobbs said. "It's become my favorite part of my master's project."
Dobbs worked with Sharon Bale of UK's horticulture department and Diane Wilson of Applewood Seed Co. in Colorado to develop a list of 27 nectar-producing perennials that are native to Kentucky as well as other parts of the transition zone. Dobbs has developed three mix programs as she continues to zero in on the best mix to promote bee and butterfly activity on golf courses, parks and horse farms throughout Kentucky and the rest of the transition zone. 
"We're still working on what is the best mix," Dobbs said. "It doesn't do us much good if we include a flower that doesn't attract more than one specie of bee."
Scott Bender, CGCS at Marriott Griffin Gate Golf Club in Lexington said the Operation Pollinator plot located between the Nos. 2 and 8 greens has generated interest among some of his golfers thanks to signage that marks the area.
"That gave us a story to tell," Bender said. 
"Our philosophy here is that any time we can showcase something that is positive for the environment and it doesn't detract from our golfers' experience, then we're going to do it."
For superintendents who believe establishing a butterfly and bee garden might take more time and resources than they can afford, Bender said: "It requires almost no time or resources, and the area, we barely touch it, and it's easy to establish. For me, it was a no-brainer."
Although Dobbs' work is still in the experimental phase, the research is producing positive results with several species of bees, both social and solitary, as well as butterflies and moths among the regular visitors to her plots.
The cause or causes of declining bee and butterfly populations is not fully understood by researchers, but some blame some of the pesticides used to control insect pests on golf courses.
Some chemical classes, particularly neonicotinoids that are used in agricultural production as well as turf and ornamental protection, have come under heavy scrutiny for alleged non-target effects on bees and other insects. Although no peer-reviewed studies in the United States have linked neonicotinoid use to declining bee populations, the European Union in April voted for a two-year restriction on some pesticides within that chemistry class.
What researchers do know is that something is causing a spike in bee mortality and reproductive rates as well as a problem called colony collapse disorder. The latter is a phenomenon in which the bees lose the ability to effectively forage for pollen and find their way home to the colony. Dobbs said that neonicotinoid use since the 1990s, along with parasitic pressures and habitat loss are coming together to affect bee populations.
"It's a very complicated issue, and I don't think anyone really knows what is causing colony collapse. I do know that the belief in the academic community is that several things are combining to create a perfect storm, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticide use and parasitic pressure," Dobbs said. 
"Any one of those things alone wouldn't be enough to take down a bee colony, but when they're all happening at the same time, the bees can't withstand that."
Whatever, the cause for declining populations of bees and butterflies, there are many who share Dobbs' passion for helping protect them.
Since being implemented in the United Kingdom 10 years ago, Operation Pollinator plots have been established on more than 2,000 sites across 15 countries, with some bee populations increasing by 600 to 1,200 percent across Europe, according to Syngenta, which helps support the program worldwide.
It is Dobbs hope that once her research is completed that others will be able to put it into place throughout much of the transition zone. The flowers in her study also are native to many other states, including Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.
Marriott Golf will be replicating the program at some of its other courses, Dobbs said. 
"Hopefully after this year, the experimental part will be done and anyone can pick out a wildflower mix and put it out wherever they want to," she said.
"And it's not just for golf courses. This can go into any area schools, gardens, horse farms. I'm receiving a lot of feedback from those who are interested and want to use it as an educational tool. 
"In different areas it might take some tweaking. I don't think you can lay this down in Montana and get the same results, but the backbone of the project has been laid down, and it should be pretty straightforward to adapt a mix we've created."

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