Tiny Pollinators Need Wildlife Corridors Too

Bison aren’t the only animals that roam.

Ian Webster / Courtesy of Sarah Bergmann

The campus of Seattle University, just east of the city center, is famous for its gardens, many of them filled with plants native to the Pacific Northwest. There is a tea garden, two rain gardens, a wildlife garden, and a community garden. There is an ethnobotanic garden, a biodiversity garden, and a garden dedicated to the remembrance of local Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. One open lawn, bordered with trees, is known simply as “Thinking Field.”

Over the past few years, another kind of garden has quietly threaded its way from the eastern edge of campus into the surrounding neighborhood. It’s just twelve feet wide but a mile long, an intermittent series of beds planted in the space between the curb and sidewalk. Recently, when I walked along the pathway with its founder, Sarah Bergmann, she pointed out each bed of native shrubs and flowers as if it were a room in a childhood home, telling me who had planted it and when, what was thriving and what wasn’t. Cared for mostly by residents and volunteers, these careful plantings of columbine and woolly sunflowers, beargrass and Oregon grape are the humble expression of a very big idea.

When I tell you that this linear garden is called the Pollinator Pathway, meant to help pollinators move through an urban landscape, you might think: ‘Oh, a garden for honeybees, right? I’ve heard of those.’ If you said something like this within Bergmann’s earshot, she would gently but firmly correct you. The Pollinator Pathway isn’t intended for honeybees, which are, after all, European imports that primarily pollinate agricultural crops. Instead, it is designed for the native species—bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and bats, among others—that keep the local ecosystem running. “This isn’t about the future of farming,” Bergmann says. “It’s about the future of nature.”

(Studio Matthews / Courtesy of Sarah Bergmann)

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Bergmann, who was raised in both the Netherlands and the U.S., is a designer by training, not a conservationist, but in the early 2000s she began thinking more deeply about the relationship between people and nature. When a tiny sparrow landed at her feet in New York City, stunned but alive after colliding with a skyscraper, she suddenly realized that cities are ecosystems, and host all kinds of life; when she visited an exhibition of the life-sized watercolors of American birds painted by John James Audubon in the 1800s, she started thinking about how culture informs our view of other species. She moved to Seattle in 2007, and after the death of her mother and the abrupt end of a relationship, she founded the Pollinator Pathway. “In almost every single way, the project started out of grief,” she says.

Bergmann decided to focus on native pollinators because they’re relatively small, often live near humans, and facilitate one of the most basic and essential processes on the planet—plant sex. Some 90 percent of flowering plant species depend at least partly on animal pollinators for reproduction. Pollinators, however, are declining in both diversity and number, facing threats including development, pesticides, invasive species and climate change. Many researchers, including those involved in a major U.N. report on pollinator health released last year, note that connections among habitats protect pollinators by allowing them to move to more hospitable climates, or avoid intermittent threats such as pesticide application. Joseph Wilson, a professor at Utah State University, says that while some of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America can fly for miles, others are less than a quarter of the size of a honeybee, and can only fly a couple of hundred feet at a time. “Habitat connectivity at that scale could help these smaller bees disperse more efficiently, and contribute to a more diverse and healthy community of species,” he says.

By designing a connection between two urban habitats known to support native pollinators—a connection that could be built collaboratively by residents and the city, and replicated elsewhere—Bergmann wanted to not only help pollinators, but also challenge people to think differently about conservation. In some ways, the pathway would be similar to wildlife corridors for larger species, but the project wouldn’t necessarily restore or protect habitat; instead, it would design and build it from scratch, in the middle of a landscape long dominated by humans.

Bergman settled on a mile-long stretch between the Seattle University campus and a patch of urban forest called Nora’s Woods, and raised enough money from the city, private foundations, and individual donors to fund the first stages of the project. She consulted with experts in design, ecology, and other disciplines. She knocked on neighborhood doors, asking homeowners if they would be interested in having their parking strip converted into a garden. (In Seattle, parking strips are owned jointly by homeowners and the city, and so far, no homeowner has declined to join the Pollinator Pathway.) She recruited more than 3,000 volunteers, including homeowners and hundreds of university students, to help plant and care for the freshly dug beds of pollinator-friendly plants. She sat through a lot of meetings, and slogged through a lot of bureaucracy.

The plants bloomed, the pathway lengthened, and the project caught on, attracting attention from architects and planners, curators and conservationists, ecologists and bug nerds near and far. Initially, Bergmann was delighted. But she gradually realized that most people were less interested in helping complete the pathway she’d started and more interested in starting their own. “I was trying to begin with a singular, monumental project that required a great deal of engagement and support, so it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for,” she says. Isolated gardens of pollinator-friendly plants, she knew, wouldn’t be nearly as useful to pollinators as a continuous pathway between two larger habitats.

Worse, many people became interested in the Pollinator Pathway because they had heard about the decline of European honeybees, and wanted to do something about that. While honeybees are a vital part of the agricultural system, Bergmann hadn’t started the Pollinator Pathway in order to benefit agriculture. She wanted it to benefit the ecosystem. “The project basically got hijacked by the save-the-honeybee narratives,” she says. One Seattle developer announced that a new housing complex would include what they called Pollinator Pathways—isolated gardens of plants known to attract honeybees. “It was sprawl by design, with species sprinkled on,” she says. When Bergmann asked that honeybee-focused efforts not use the Pollinator Pathway name, one outraged volunteer accused her of being a representative of Monsanto.

Bergmann was frustrated, and tired of always having to clarify the difference between her project and the mushrooming number of honeybee gardens and honeybee pathways in Seattle and elsewhere. For several years, she stepped back from promoting the project, though she and volunteers continued to build the pathway. Now, she’s looking for a local institution that will commit to the necessary long-term up-keep of the gardens; she wants to ensure that as time passes and houses are bought and sold, native pollinators will enjoy uninterrupted service.

(Studio Matthews / Courtesy of Sarah Bergmann)

Bergmann is also thinking bigger: She’s working with Stok, a design firm in San Francisco, on plans for a Pollinator Pathway in the Presidio, and she’s working with her local utility, Seattle City Light, to establish a 14-mile-long Pollinator Pathway along a power-line corridor. The corridor is sprinkled with parking lots and dominated by invasive plants—utility ecologist Rory Denovan calls it the “ultimate disturbed habitat”—but it intersects with healthier habitats, including a river and an urban greenbelt. Local nonprofit groups have established test gardens in the corridor to see which native plants grow best in which locations, and in the spring they will begin the long process of replanting about 30 acres of land. Denovan says that over time, the utility hopes to reduce its maintenance costs, make the land friendlier to recreation, and boost biodiversity. “We’ll never get to a native-dominated, self-sustaining plant community, but we can get a lot closer to it,” he says.

The initial Pollinator Pathway is still a work in progress—just as Bergmann intended. “I quite literally made a landscape in order to think about the landscape,” she says. The pathway isn’t wild, not by the usual definitions, but it isn’t a predictable place, either, for it could grow in any direction. Instead, it’s a place where theory meets the ground, and takes root.