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Variation on a Theme - Safeguarding the Future of Small Creatures

Susan Bence

There is growing international concern about the future of ecosystems – from coral reefs to the arctic circle.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence found both local people determined to protect small creatures - one the Monarch butterfly, the other honeybees. Her first stop, was at the Milwaukee County grounds – in Wauwatosa.

There’s no way of missing the sign an Eagle Scout crafted to perfection. It reads, The Friends of the Monarch trail. Despite its clear message, it would be tricky these days getting onto the trail; unless you jumped an industrial strength fence and dodged heavy equipment. Workers are using it all to tame the landscape for UWM's new research park.

Since the 1990s, Barb Agnew has been tramping across this windy terrain to watch Monarchs dine on wildflowers that spilled across the grounds.

“The last week of August and the first few weeks of September you could walk through and you were in this whirlwind of butterflies,” Agnew says. Crews have altered the feasting grounds, and Agnew says the native plants have been slow to rebound “It’s been seeded twice and it is so painfully slow to come back and part of it is the compaction that occurred,” Agnew says.

Developers have promised to protect a core pocket Monarch habitat. Agnew points to its centerpiece - a magnificent sycamore.

“Branches of the sycamore, year after year after year, the monarchs would alight on them in fall as a place of protection.” Agnew says.

However, Agnew says one island does not a robust habitat make, and she's been carrying that message to every project meeting she gets wind of. Agnew serves on a habitat plan committee. It weighs in on how close new buildings and their landscapes should come to wildlife habitat. Agnew believes negotiation is paying off. She says the first company breaking ground, ABB, Inc., significantly altered its landscaping plan.

“They’re going with a natural landscape, pervious pavement,” Agnew says.

And the Department of Transportation has agreed to alter the seed mix it will use, on the nearby Zoo Interchange reconstruction.

“They are now going to include 10 percent common milkweed, goldenrod, the aster and the boneset and they are going to do the entire zoo interchange with this seed mix,” Agnew says.

Agnew hopes the idea spills across the country.

“Roadways and highways are the last frontier, if we can take that space and provide resources for pollinators, monarchs then they have a chance, because we need vast areas,” Agnew says.

Charlie Koenen doesn’t have any problem working in a paved urban landscape at 5th and National, nor does he mind slipping on a set of antennae to emphasize his message: “save the honeybee.” Koenen says the notion that bees can’t thrive in an urban setting is plain wrong - they comfortably cruise more than two miles from the hive. Where do you find his urban bees? Perhaps in places you would not expect.

“They collect all the apple blossoms on all the trees along Bradley Tech; they go down along the lakefront and grab tons of food that way,” Koenen says.

Koenen is more concerned about bees that rely on farm fields.

Credit Susan Bence
Charlie Koenen hopes his save the honeybee message resonates in an urban setting.

“Because a field has one crop and when the one crop is in bloom, it’s a smorgasbord but the whole rest of the time that there’s no flower; there’s really no food,” Koenen says.

However, his deeper concern is about the honeybees dying by the droves; there's growing suspicion that a new class of pesticides is to blame. Koenen doesn’t think there’s time to wait for the verdict.

“I'm thinking locally to get globally; the main mission is to make a beehive as ubiquitous as a fire hydrant; so if we can people to understand the worth of bees,” Koenen says.

Koenen designed a user-friendly hive – called a Beepod. It’s shaped like an old-fashioned cradle. He works with school kids to assemble them, and says they go nuts when bees move inside.

“The glass window on the side of Beepod is bee TV. Just pop the window off and look. Little kids will just sit around and watch the bees walking around inside. It’s just so cool,” Koenen says

The way Koenen sees it, not a single honey bee is expendable. So, he even responds to calls to remove irksome swarms.

“I’ve got access to a cherry picker truck; you know drive up and get them out of trees,” Koenen says.

He’s even willing to extract them from walls; offering all the bees, a new home.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.