Pine, American Sweetgum and Box Elder saplings growing close to energy infrastructure can end up causing trouble if they are left uncontrolled. With some of these trees growing to 20 meters tall, or more, they can interfere with power lines, even causing blackouts and fires. Their spreading roots can damage infrastructure, corrode natural gas pipes and cause building foundations to weaken. Above the ground and more visible to us, roads can be buried by the power of nature. Vegetation management experts must protect the natural environment and also the infrastructure that supports our lives. They also have to make sure that plants don’t cause damage that can ultimately harm people.
Wild plants are a part of ecological balance: Flowering plants – bushes, shrubs or wild flowers – provide nutrition and foraging habitat for pollinators like honey bees, wild bees, butterflies and moths, as well as many other animals. Whether naturally occurring or landscaped, these habitats provide shelter and a place for wildlife to nest and breed. But simply adding more plants isn’t sufficient. Invasive plants, which are not native to the area, can lead to a shift in the ecological balance. “Several field studies have shown that within a few years, some invasive plants might win the natural competition between native and non-native species in a certain area,” says David Spak, Stewardship and Development Manager of the Environmental Science business at Bayer in North Carolina, USA. “Therefore, we have to manage invasive, incompatible vegetation to protect the biodiversity of native plants, as well as the surrounding infrastructure.” Bayer supports Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) which focuses on fighting these unwanted weeds and brush species while promoting natural habitats.
We have to manage invasive, incompatible vegetation to protect the biodiversity of native plants, as well as the surrounding infrastructure.
Nature and Technology: A Beautiful Partnership
According to Spak, IVM strategies are complex. “Our work helps to interconnect diverse land areas on private and public property: Power lines cross over roadsides, and public rights-of-way run next to pastures and farms, providing a green connector to residential areas.” At Bayer, Spak is working with a team of regional managers who support customers, including farmers and industrial landowners as well as state and federal agencies, to manage their available land. He and his team are also responsible for the development of innovative and new selective products used in non-crop areas, such as roadsides, railroads, forestry, rangeland, and utility rights of way.
Thanks to many contributors, including IVM Partners, Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative in the USA has planted nearly three billion flowers since it was launched in 2015. These blooming areas create abundant additional forage habitat for many pollinator species.
Source: Bayer Bee Care Center USA, RTP
Abundant Sites to Nest, Breed and Feed
Balancing vegetation control while protecting pollinator habitats is of particular concern: “Pollinators play a vital role in the world’s ecosystem. Each species has specific vegetation requirements for optimum nutrition and habitat,” says Spak. Through cooperation and partnerships, Bayer is improving and expanding pollinator and wildlife habitats on public sites across the United States. IVM strategies also enable the preservation of these areas. Although herbicides are one important aspect of IVM, Spak says this approach goes far beyond: “IVM combines all the possible methods of controlling vegetation: mechanical methods include cutting and mowing, biological methods including plant competition and natural herbicides, and animal predation.”
To document and improve the impact of these practices on pollinator habitats across the United States, Bayer initiated a partnership in 2015 with the non-profit organization IVM Partners, headed by Rick Johnstone. By working closely with the private sector, conservationists and government agencies, they are able to establish best land management practices on a wide scale, based on the results of scientific analyses. Johnstone and a team of wildlife biologists are implementing documentation studies on field properties, which provide rights of way for different purposes, the transmission of electricity and gas, or transportation corridors such as highways and roadways. The researchers record changes in plant species and pollinator populations using diverse IVM practices, including Bayer’s herbicides.
The restored native prairie and wetland meadow habitats have attracted scores of birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
In recent tests across various ecosystems, IVM Partners has been collecting data before, during and after the application of these products. Their consistent results from the data collected have confirmed a positive effect from judicious herbicide applications used in a customized approach: “Trees and invasive weeds have been controlled, allowing desirable early succession plants to germinate from dormant seeds,” says Johnstone. “The restored native prairie and wetland meadow habitats have attracted scores of birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators that are being documented by experts from US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey and several universities.”
Making a Concrete Plan
Although plant protection is one important aspect of IVM, Spak says this approach goes far beyond: “We combine all the possible methods of controlling vegetation: mechanical methods include cutting and mowing, while biological and cultural methods take advantage of plant competition, natural herbicides and animal predation. Man-made herbicides like Bayer’s help this process along by controlling undesirable weed species,” explains Spak. “And sometimes less is more.” One example is reducing or eliminating mowing, especially during late summer and autumn when flowering asters are providing much needed nectar for migrating pollinators, such as Monarch butterfly. This in turn reduces carbon footprint and overall environmental impact. “The idea is to use the right tool at the right time to keep inputs to a minimum and make management sustainable,” he says. This approach not only benefits the environment, but it reduces overall costs. When early successional native plants are restored, mowing may not again be necessary.
One of Spak’s biggest challenges is to change people’s mindsets, to steer them away from traditional methods of controlling vegetation. “IVM is a bit more complex and requires some thought. It’s a strategy, a plan,” he explains. “With IVM, you have to think long-term about what your objective is – instead of short-term cost cutting you need to look for long-term improvement and permanent economic benefit instead of simply reacting to the current situation.” As Spak reminds us, “Seeing is believing.” That’s why, together with his team, they are using collected data to show people what IVM practices can produce on their property. Documentation is important for encouraging the adoption of IVM practices. This process affords further research and data collection as scientific proof. “As we learn more from these studies, we can become more convincing,” Spak emphasizes.
At this stage, the team can point out sites where IVM has demonstrated success in achieving multiple goals, such as controlling undesirable plants while releasing native species – with the right practice, at the right time. “In the future, we want to build a reliable database that indicates the advantages of IVM,” Spak explains. “Data will include plant counts, kinds of plant species and the numbers and species of pollinators present. Our goal is to better measure the full impact of IVM across various ecosystems,” Spak explains.
One of IVM Partners’ goals is the development of a “pollinator site value index (PSVI)” for measuring the relative benefit of different flowers providing nectar and pollen. They will judge the importance of plants from the pollinator’s viewpoint, not just how attractive a flower might be to a human. IVM practices will help landowners to balance a natural environment with secure and stable buildings and infrastructure. “By optimizing land use for pollinators and other wildlife, farmers may even be able to increase their harvests,” says Spak. The same IVM practices researched on rights of way can be applied on conservation lands around agricultural fields. These practices may help attract native bees, butterflies and other insects, which in turn could help pollinate their crops. And without ever noticing these small contributions to the environment, many people will benefit from the work of those who are making the best of nature.