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Rangelands critical habitat for beef and bees to thrive

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Most often, rangelands are thought of as a forage resource for livestock production. However, pollinators found on rangelands including beetles, flies, wasps, butterflies, moths and bees, are also critical components for maintaining healthy rangelands. 

In a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch podcast, Beef Extension Educator Aaron Berger and Range and Forage Management Specialist Dr. Mitchell Stephenson discuss an article regarding the importance of rangelands to insect pollinators. UNL Sandhills Rangeland Monitoring Cooperative (SRMC) Project Manager Kayla Mollet and UNL Research Technologist Jessica Milby co-author the article titled “Pollinators and Nebraska Rangelands” with Stephenson.  

Symbiotic relationships

“Oftentimes as we focus on beef production, we focus on the grass, but there are a number of species out there important for our pollinator species,” says Stephenson. 

SRMC conducted vegetation monitoring in the summer of 2019 and found 72 percent of the 94 plant species found in upland Sandhills pastures were forbs and shrubs.  

“Forbs and shrubs make up the majority of pollinator plant lists due to nectar and pollen rewards they offer to insects in exchange for pollination,” according to the article. “Native plant communities provide shelter, food and refuge for a wide variety of beneficials.” 

While pollinators depend on rangeland plants for habitat and sustenance, flowering forbs rely on pollinators for reproduction. According to the article, a threatened flowering species, the western prairie fringed orchid, requires certain species of hawkmoth for pollination. 

Native rangeland plants and pollinators are not the only species in the ecosystem that benefit from the presence of each other.

“Pollinators are an integral part of the food chain as many game bird species rely on their immature grubs for nutrition,” the article says. 

Along with supporting wildlife, symbiotic relationships benefit all parties to help to sustain healthy rangeland soils. 

Habitat requirements

Rangelands around the world have seen declines in pollinator numbers over the last few decades. 

“Habitat fragmentation, climate change and pesticide use are all things contributing to the concerns and declines of rangeland pollinators,” says Stephenson. 

Often, some of the best management practices for livestock grazing also benefit pollinators in the area. This makes ranching and rural communities a great place for pollinating insects to call home. 

“Ranching communities provide a safe haven for a number of native pollinator insect species crucial to healthy rangeland ecosystems,” notes Stephenson. 

While the specific habitat needs of each pollinator depends on species, general requirements include quality sources for nectar and pollen, water, nesting sites and wintering habitat.

“A well-managed rangeland can often have a lot of different habitat types for different insects as well as different forb species which may be selected in higher abundance,” Stephenson says. 

Grazing management

“Promoting, maintaining and enhancing pollinator habitat can be incorporated into effective livestock grazing management goals,” according to the article. 

“I think rotating cattle grazing during the growing season and changing the timing on pastures will allow at least some of the pastures to have some of these forbs reach full maturity and go to the flowering stage where they can be utilized by these insects,” says Stephenson.  

Along with rotational grazing, other management practices cater to pollinators with different habitat preferences. Many forb species tend to grow in recently disturbed areas. 

“Some management practices such as patch burn grazing will have a relatively high disturbance, but if allowed to recover, will encourage forbs to come back in these areas,” Stephenson adds. 

“We need to make sure we are seeing some of these flowering species,” says Stephenson on making grazing management changes. “Be sure to give pastures time to rest so these species can be enhanced.” 

Herbicide recommendation

In terms of treating noxious or other weeds, the article recommends remaining mindful of pollinator habitat, even as noxious weeds must be removed. As always, early detection and rapid response are the best weed practices. 

“As much as possible, focus on targeted application and limit broad-scale application,” notes Stephenson. “There is a risk of taking out beneficial forbs that are necessary for pollinators to do well.”

Stephenson recommends knowing what is in pastures before applying herbicides. 

“There is a cascading effect if we take out beneficial forbs,” he says. “It may not be worth it.”

 “As a rangeland beef community, this is something very appealing as a whole because we can show that producers provide a lot of habitat on their land for something we benefit from as a society,” shares Stephenson.  

Averi Hales is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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