Welcome home, bees: Great River Energy, MnDOT and Elk River to bring back prairie

Honey bees and butterflies looking for a home will soon have more than nine new acres in Elk River to settle into.

It’s all thanks to Great River Energy, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the city of Elk River and their shared commitment to helping pollinators. Together the organizations are re-establishing pollinator-friendly habitat on the nine-acre plot on Great River Energy’s Elk River campus along U.S. Highway 10 and the Mississippi River. Not bad – that’s a pretty good-sized house for a bee.

“My 6-year-old grandson was helping me plow this spring, and he told me I needed to plow around those dandelions. He said they’re needed for bees. And bees make honey for us and pollinate everything,” said Mike Thorson, board chair for Great River Energy, a not-for-profit electric cooperative. “This project is just one example of how our cooperative strives to be a good steward of our communities.”

Craig Poorker, Great River Energy’s manager of land rights, said, “This project will protect ground water and our namesake river by greatly reducing use of herbicides and fertilizer. I grew up living near and exploring an oak savanna prairie northwest of Princeton and learned a lot just by observing,” said Poorker. “There was no shortage of monarch butterflies.”

Reports of the decline in honey bees and butterflies have been abundant in recent years. The U.S. Department of the Interior has named June 20-26 National Pollinator Week to raise awareness.

Besides attracting more bees and butterflies to Elk River, there will be other environmental perks. Native prairie plantings can take a few years to fully establish, but after that, the flowers that pollinators love will add a pop of color to the roadside and the community.

“This project fits our profile as both Energy City and Powered by Nature,” said Elk River City Council Member Jerry Olsen. “Economically, long term, it’s better. And in time, it will be extremely attractive.”

Making it all the more buzz-worthy, the project is along one of Minnesota’s most heavily-traveled roads. That’s where MnDOT comes in. They have been working hard to help major pollinator projects take flight and four acres of the project are in their right of way.

“State roadways have acres and acres of habitat ideal for pollinators,” said MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle. “We should strive to build awareness of pollinator needs along our roadways. With careful planning, we can ensure that monarch butterflies and other creatures that pollinate will thrive, which ultimately benefits our food sources and us.”

MnDOT recently joined five other departments of transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to improve pollinator habitat along Interstate 35, a key migratory corridor for monarch butterflies.

As Energy City, Elk River has big pollinator plans, too.

“This project fits well with the city’s native planting projects in parks and along street rights of way. Elk River Energy City has a goal of seeing 100 acres of new native plantings in the city by 2024 and this project will take one large step to help us achieve that goal,” said Kristin Mroz, city of Elk River environmental technician.

Certainly 100 new acres of native habitat would bring a smile to butterfly lovers’ faces.

“Growing up, we often would catch a monarch caterpillar, put it in an ice cream pail with some milkweed, watch it form a chrysalis and become a butterfly. It was a great lesson in nature and I wish for other young children to experience the same,” said Poorker.

Great River Energy has established more than 200 acres of native habitat with other projects. The city of Elk River has established around 67 acres and will have 160 acres more once the William H. Houlton Conservation Area is converted to oak savanna in 2017.

Pollinators are not only an important part of the ecosystem, they’re also critical to the economy. By transferring pollen from flower to flower, pollinators help plants grow and spread. Over two-thirds of human food crops require this pollination assistance.