Bees and Butterflies Find New, Native Habitat

Pollinators — beautiful, important links in our food chain — find themselves welcome at the Collins River Prairie, a peaceful oasis beneath power lines.

Picture transmission lines reaching across a right of way at Rock Island State Park in Middle Tennessee; it’s easy to imagine the electricity buzzing through them. Listen closely, and you may hear grateful pollinators buzzing below the lines, too. 

A number of partners are transforming a selected transmission right of way at the park—which is between Nashville and Chattanooga—into a flowering field of native plants and grasses. The new Collins River Prairie is a field of dreams for at-risk pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Why It Matters

Pollinators are valuable because they fertilize flowers, which is vital for the production of fruits, vegetables and nuts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollination to reproduce.

Remarkably, just as people appreciate local foods and flavors, pollinators also fare better with their native flowers and grasses. But too often, invasive species encroach on native vegetation, choking it out.                                             

TVA’s management plan for transmission rights of way on private land can promote diverse, native plant habitats under the right conditions. The Collins River Prairie takes a unique approach. 

“This project began with a labor-intensive effort to clear out overgrown invasive species in the power line rights of way several years ago,” said Damon Graham, park manager at Rock Island. “The site was continually prepped since then and recently seeded with a blend of native grasses and flowers.”

The result in the coming years will be a beautiful, park-like grassland that is very pollinator-friendly. “One reason we chose this area is the hiking trails that intersect the right of way,” says Matt Simcox, TVA transmission right-of-way forester. “Hikers will cross through the middle of the pollinator habitat, plus motorists can see the prairie from the road.”

Accessible, yet protected, the area is surrounded by the Collins River and bordered on several sides by the highway and parking, according to Simcox. It’s a special spot.

Critical Corridors

TVA botanist Adam Dattilo sees it as a first step in the journey to restore pollinator habitat at strategic locations across our region.

“Emerging research is telling us that the powerline corridors are critical to the conservation of pollinators and plants,” he says. “It’s extremely important to manage these corridors properly, promoting positive environmental outcomes, while at the same time ensuring the safety of the electric grid.”

Creating the Collins River Prairie was a process that took partners, money, planning and several years of work to ensure the best possible outcome.

TVA’s Right of Way group was awarded a $15,000 grant from Environment and Energy Policy to restore pollinator habitat under power lines. Tennessee State Parks’ “Iris” license plate fund also awarded a $10,000 grant to the project. In addition to TVA and Rock Island State Park, partners include Quail Forever and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Division of Natural Areas and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“With the help of our partners and public we can make an important, positive impact on the world around us,” says Dattilo.

You Can Help Save the Bees and Butterflies

Fortunately, even small areas with the right plants can make a difference to pollinators. The good news is that it doesn’t take much time or land.

Dattilo says the pollinator plants and grasses used in the Collins River Prairie will work in most sunny yards in the Valley with the same, environmentally friendly results. Take a cue from TVA employees who carry TVA’s mission of environmental stewardship home with them, planting native pollinators in their flower beds or containers. These plants not only attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators, they don’t require fertilizers, they are drought tolerant and they aid in erosion prevention.

“Despite lots of shade, we have some sunny spots where we’ve planted lots of native pollinators,” says Rachel Terrell, TVA Public Outreach manager, who lives in Paris, Tennessee. Brown-eyed Susan, Indian paintbrush, coneflower and others that bloom throughout the season fill her garden with grateful bees and butterflies. 

“My husband and I have noticed that planting native flowers is a conversation-starter with neighbors about how the choices in the garden can impact the environment.”

Retired TVA employee Alma Laurent has two reasons to plant native pollinators at her home in Seymour, Tenn. First, it’s good for the environment, but it’s also good for the bees that inhabit her nine hives.

Laurent’s bees and other visiting pollinators enjoy sunflowers, coneflowers, an assortment of wildflowers and more. Do her bees have a favorite? “Yes, whatever is in bloom,” she says.

Dattilo prefers milkweed species in general, but butterfly milkweed in particular for his own pollinator garden at home. “It is a native plant that stays low to the ground and has a brightly colored orange flower,” he says. “Also, it provides habitat for the monarch butterfly.”

To achieve color and continuous bloom all season, Dattilo recommends checking out some of the top picks for your region from the Xerces Society. Butterfly milkweed, wrinkleleaf golden rod and other pollinator plants from Collins River Prairie appear on this list.