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Saving Ohio’s Pollinators - ODOT State Initiative

Sep 08, 2015


  • Conservation Stories

Written by Candy Sarikonda, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist and Wild Ones Ohio Member.

Pollinators are critical to maintaining our ecosystems and putting food on our tables.  Yet honeybees, monarchs and our native pollinators are in decline.  Habitat loss has been identified as a significant factor in this decline.  Fortunately, transportation rights-of-way can provide habitat corridors for pollinators to reproduce, forage and migrate. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is well aware of this fact, and has taken action to protect Ohio’s pollinators through the state-wide “Saving Ohio’s Pollinators” initiative. 

The initiative was developed in direct response to the growing loss of bees and other pollinators.  Their survival is directly tied to Ohio’s agricultural success and everyone’s need for fruits and vegetables. With over 65% of Ohio’s commercial hives lost in 2013-2014, ODOT is endeavoring to improve those odds by providing pesticide-free food sources for pollinators in the form of native Ohio prairie along state-owned right-of-way.

The ODOT state initiative evolved from a pilot project, developed by Dianne Kahal-Berman as part of her Ohio Certified Public Manager program.  The pilot project, known as the Bee Pollinator Habitat Project, was designed to improve pollinator habitat along state-owned right-of-way.  Kahal-Berman, District 9 Project Manager, initiated the program in the fall of 2013 to help reduce bee losses suffered by Ohio's apiaries.  A monarch advocate, Kahal-Berman has spear-headed efforts to include milkweed in Ohio’s roadside planting plans.

Kahal-Berman began the Bee Pollinator Habitat project by researching and leading the installation of two 1-acre pollinator habitat plots along Rt. 207 in Ross County, Ohio in June 2014.  These plots were planted using a seed mix designed by ODOT with the advice of Bonnie Harper-Lore and Ohio Prairie Nursery.  These plots have acted as test plots, essentially for ODOT to "learn how to do it right."  This step was important because previous roadside prairie installations resulted in the establishment of poor quality prairie with a multitude of non-native invasives ravaging the plots.  Kahal-Berman extensively researched seed mixes, planting guidelines and techniques, and worked with Pheasants Forever Deer County chapter to install these test plots.  This process formed the basis for the Planting Guidelines brochure featured on the program's website.

The District 9 program has gone by many names over its evolution.  It is affectionately known as the 4 B's--Bees, Butterflies, Birds and Beauty.  It is now most often referred to as the District 9 Pollinator Habitat Program.  

The program has since been taken to the state level by Scott Lucas of ODOT Central Office.  Scott Lucas is Administrator of Maintenance for ODOT and leads many of the various roadside projects for the state.  The state-wide initiative, “Saving Ohio’s Pollinators,” aims to involve other Ohio districts in pollinator habitat conservation.  Lucas is working on identifying high quality areas of milkweed, and obtaining No Mow signs to protect these areas.  Since ODOT workers may have difficulty recognizing milkweed, Kahal-Berman has also created a milkweed identification poster for use by districts.  

It is important to note that ODOT members are volunteering their time on this initiative.  So a BIG “Thank You” goes out to all those who have made this program possible!

ODOT is determined to use native seed of local Ohio genotype.  Most seed vendors are brokers who obtain seed from other Midwest states, some as far away as Texas.  ODOT felt very strongly that by using locally-sourced seed, they not only had a surprisingly good crop of native plants at the Ross County plots this year but they also expect to have plants that can propagate successfully for the future.  By protecting existing high-quality milkweed and nectar sources, these sites can act as a seed source for future restoration projects.  This is especially important for areas like northwest Ohio, where the Oak Openings region is a globally rare ecosystem recognized by the Nature Conservancy as being equal to the Florida Everglades in its importance.  ODOT can help preserve the Oak Openings and other Ohio ecosystems.  

Ohio farmers may have concerns regarding the planting of milkweed near their production lands.  A multitude of concerns including milkweed toxicity, potential livestock poisoning, hay contamination and spread of milkweed into adjacent farmlands can pose a challenge.  Some farmers, especially in southern OH, have contracts to mow roadsides for hay, and they may worry that milkweed could mold the hay.  Farmers may also object to rhizomatous milkweed species being planted near their farmland--regardless of what kinds of crops they grow.  In light of these concerns, and with a desire to engage agricultural stakeholders, it was important to be proactive and find a solution that could work for all parties involved.  ODOT decided to use less aggressive species, like butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), as deemed necessary; and to use species like common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at sites not adjacent to farmland, such as abandoned weigh stations and appropriate rights-of-way.

Several DOTs across the country are working to improve roadside pollinator habitat.  More developments will be coming in the near future.  So stay tuned, and please support your DOTs.  By starting small, selecting the best sites for habitat restoration, and working to protect what is already growing along our roadsides, DOTs can be instrumental in educating the public and helping to save the monarch migration.  Kudos to ODOT!


Note on upcoming presentation:  Dianne Kahal-Berman and Scott Lucas will be presenting the “Saving Ohio’s Pollinators” program, along with Bonnie Harper-Lore, on Wednesday, October 28th at the Ohio Transportation Engineering Conference (OTEC) from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.  The presentation will cover ODOT pollinator habitat restoration and maintenance efforts.


Additional Information and Resources:

Explanation of ODOT Pollinator Habitat Program, complete with planting guidelines, brochures, seed mix used, plant ID posters, etc

ODOT Newsletter explaining the planting of the test plots and the launch of the Bee Pollinator Habitat project, pages 3-4

Article by the Columbus Dispatch on the planting of the test plots

Pollinators and Roadsides (Xerces):

Federal Highways Literature Review prepared by Xerces:

Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (Tallgrass Prairie Center):

Pollinator BMP’s for roadsides (MN dept of ag)


The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.