Manitou Springs is now certifiably a friend to bees and butterflies as a new pollinator district

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Abigail Beckman/KRCC News
A honeybee visits the flowers on a flowering tree in Mansions Park in Manitou Springs.

Manitou Springs hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, but the city is also working to welcome a different kind of visitor — pollinators. Thanks to the efforts of a local nonprofit, the small mountain town will soon be the first municipality to be deemed a certified pollinator district by the Denver-area Butterfly Pavilion. 

Melody Daugherty leads the Manitou Pollinators. What was originally a small, grassroots club has now grown to include a network of citizens focused on filling the city with native flora and fauna that can withstand long-term drought and meet the needs of regional pollinators.

On a recent morning near a long, rectangular garden, Daugherty pointed out the plants that don't quite belong. 

"Like irises," she said, navigating her way through the patch of flowers. "So, eventually I'm going to be giving them a new home because they don't fit the bill and then I will replace them with a native plant."

Daugherty said irises aren't necessarily bad – bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds still visit and benefit from the fragrant blooms, but irises don't support the local ecosystem in the same way as plants like echinacea, goldenrod, and rabbitbrush. 

Changing a lack of native plants

As a professional gardener, Daugherty has been alarmed by what she sees as a lack of native plants in flower beds and for sale at garden centers for years.

Abigail Beckman/KRCC News
Melody Daugherty leads the Manitou Pollinators, a network of citizens focused on filling the city with native plants that can withstand long-term drought and meet the needs of regional pollinators.

"I think that we have been coasting along with our water consumption in a way and living by a different idea about what beauty looks like in a garden, just for the garden's sake and maybe not for pollinators," Daugherty explained.

The city's park and rec department gave the group this garden. It sits in a city park just a little ways away from Manitou Avenue. Daugherty said the Manitou Pollinators' initial work started in members' backyards, but after area beekeepers raised the alarm about bee colony collapse in 2018, they felt obligated to do something more.

"We intuitively knew that creating our little gardens was not going to solve the problem that our beekeepers were telling us," she said.

According to NPR, beekeepers in the United States lost nearly 40 percent of their honeybee colonies that year. 

Daugherty said one of the most impactful things she learned from beekeepers is that pollinators need continuity and connected habitats.

"...and [as we continue] developing and developing, we keep taking out continuous plants for them to rest in and nest in and raise their baby, to mate and breed in," she said.

How Manitou Springs got pollinator certified

After reading an article about a new program at the Denver-area Butterfly Pavilion focused on pollinator-friendly communities, Daugherty says she reached out to see if Manitou Springs could be one. 

The answer was yes. 

After four years of work, the city will soon be the first municipality to receive the certification from Butterfly Pavilion as a pollinator district.

"One of the things that's really remarkable about Manitou Springs is there are so many stakeholders that are very interested in being a part of this effort," said Amy Yarger, Horticulture Director at Butterfly Pavilion.

That includes the city, the local school district, other conservation groups, and even a nearby garden center. Yarger said it's a lot of work to create, maintain, and expand habitats for birds, bats, and insects that travel from plant to plant carrying pollen on their bodies. That process is critical in the reproductive cycle of most flowering plants. 

Butterfly Pavilion is also working with developers on a property in Turks and Caicos and at a few sites in Denver, according to Yarger.

Manitou Springs is the only city to work toward certification.

"These pollinator districts that we're working on are not one size fits all," Yarger said. "It really comes down to how communities respond to the biodiversity crisis as well as the climate crisis." 

Abigail Beckman/KRCC News
Abigail Beckman/KRCC News
Abigail Beckman/KRCC News

What it takes to be a pollinator district

The certification has stringent guidelines about planning sustainably, conserving natural areas, and giving everyone in the community a chance to participate. They also have to pay special attention to how things are maintained, such as avoiding pesticides whenever possible. 

Daugherty said Manitou Springs was already on board with that, and more. The town doesn't allow non-organic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers on city-owned land. The former card catalog at the city library now stores collections of native seeds, available for free in its wooden drawers. 

Daugherty likened it to the movie "Field of Dreams."

"That's the whole idea," she said. "If you build it, then we have a really good chance of reversing, or at least slowing down, the trend of our pollinators disappearing due to their loss of native habitat." 

The Manitou Pollinators have installed and maintained seven gardens in the city. Experts from Butterfly Pavilion provide free consulting services to the town, only receiving payment for the gardens they design. Daugherty said most of the money for plants comes from grants and donations.

Manitou Springs will be officially presented with its municipal pollinator district certification this Saturday during the town's annual Pollinator Festival.

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