While motoring through canyons of 11-foot cornstalks interspersed with fields of waist-high soybeans, Iowans traversing a late-July sea of green are increasingly likely to encounter islands of multicolored wildflowers.
During the last three years, Conservation Reserve Program plantings featuring a diverse mixture of native grasses and wildflowers have grown steadily throughout the state.
Pollinator CRP plots, as they are commonly known, provide all the benefits of the standard CRP grasslands introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill — reduced soil erosion, improved water quality and habitat for ground-nesting birds and other wildlife.
Plus, they provide much needed nourishment and living space for pollinator insects and a visual treat for natural beauty enthusiasts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture — recognizing the importance of pollinator insects to the production of food crops as well as their imperiled status because of diminished habitat and increased insecticide use — has introduced several programs that offer landowners incentives for establishing meadows of native wildflowers that support bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
CP-42, one of the most popular, was the leading CRP practice enrolled in Iowa in 2016.
Its diverse mix of wildflowers and perennial native grasses must include milkweed, the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs and the only plant their larva will consume.
To ensure protracted food availability, the mix also must include at least three flowering plants that reach maturity in each of the three blooming seasons — spring, summer and fall.
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Pollinator CRP, which is less dense than traditional CRP grasslands, provides excellent cover for pheasants to nest and raise their young, said Greg Schmitt, a private lands biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
It remains to be seen, he said, whether pollinator CRP will provide thick enough cover to protect pheasants from the rigors of winter.
The pollinator plots have become especially visible this summer both because of favorable growing conditions and because the plots planted in 2016 are now well established, said Schmitt, who helps landowners plan and execute conservation practices.
“Certain plants like coneflower and bergamot really like the combination of heat and moisture we’ve had this year,” he said.
The now predominant bergamot (also known as bee balm) and yellow coneflower (also known as black-eyed Susan) present a lavender and yellow mosaic attractive to bumble bees, monarch butterflies and a host of less readily distinguishable beetles, wasps and hornets — and to a natural beauty enthusiast who walked among the busy pollen and nectar gatherers Monday in a field north of Quasqueton.