Olathe & Southwest Joco

Olathe’s Pollinator Prairie offers safe haven for butterflies to do important work

For the past six years, Jennifer Kingston, geological engineer, has overseen development of the Pollinator Prairie. In addition to managing and maintaining the 5-acre site with a team of volunteers, Kingston has also helped direct the creation of the education program for the native plant habitat.
For the past six years, Jennifer Kingston, geological engineer, has overseen development of the Pollinator Prairie. In addition to managing and maintaining the 5-acre site with a team of volunteers, Kingston has also helped direct the creation of the education program for the native plant habitat. Special to The Olathe News

Wherever their journeys may take them, bees, hummingbirds, dragonflies and butterflies are always welcome at the Pollinator Prairie.

For the past six years, this 5-acre native habitat, located in the heart of Olathe, has provided food and safe shelter for dozens of pollinator-dependent species, in particular monarch butterflies.

This rich prairie ecosystem has not always been the hospitable place for wildlife visitors see today.

In the 1960s, this land was the site for Chemical Commodities Inc., a chemical brokerage and recycling facility. During four decades of operation, CCI purchased chemicals from companies and government agencies around the country who shipped waste to the site for recycling.

Over time, the toxic substances spilled or leaked into the soil and groundwater, requiring a comprehensive remediation program. Beginning in 2003, Boeing, a former CCI customer, partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency and members of the local community to implement cleanup of the site.

In 2012, the land was returned to the community for use.

In the six years since, several business and community organizations, including Monarch Watch, Pollinator Partnership, and the Wildlife Habitat Council, have collaborated to create an ecological habitat on the previously hazardous property.

A pollinator is any type of insect, along with some birds, that can take the pollen from the interior of a plant to another plant, in order for those plants to continue reproducing. Monarchs and other butterfly species, all swallowtails, honeybees and many species of native bees, hummingbirds and dragonflies are just a few examples of pollinator species.

Somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of all flowering plants on the earth need help with pollination, meaning they need pollinators. Pollinator species travel from plant to plant carrying pollen on their bodies in a vital interaction that allows the transfer of genetic material critical to the reproductive system of most flowering plants. Essential to our vegetable, fruit, and other food sources, pollinators serve more than 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops.

Jennifer Kingston is a geological engineer with Haley Aldrich, one of Pollinator Prairie’s industry partners. Since 2012, Kingston has been integral in the development and growth of the site.

“In order to give this land back to the community, we worked with several groups to design the green space that became these beautiful gardens,” Kingston said.

“This site is on the flight path for 90 percent of monarchs migrating to Mexico, and these groups helped us choose the right plants to benefit them on their migration.”

Along with ensuring this now healthy habitat, Pollinator Prairie has maintained a parallel mission focused on education.

“This is a place with a concept behind it,” Kingston said. “We teach people that they can provide benefit to the earth when they plant gardens with native plants. We all need to plant species that pollinators can use.”

In order to craft this evolving educational message, Kingston works with members of the Kansas State Extension Master Gardeners and Naturalists.

Master Naturalist Sami Aaron has been a key contributor to Pollinator Prairie’s educational programs. She also coordinates many of the site’s events and activities.

“Sami is the mastermind behind the evolution of Pollinator Prairie,” Kingston said.

Since planting her first garden 16 years ago, Aaron has immersed herself in the study of native plants and their benefits to wildlife.

“Instead of planting for the human eye, I plant for wildlife, and soil and water quality. It’s a different aesthetic,” she said.

Aaron pointed out that Pollinator Prairie’s seasonal gardens provide plants for different species of insects and wildlife to meet their unique nutrient, protection and other needs from season to season.

For example, bumblebees are essential to the pollinating ecosystem. During spring and early summer storms, they will slip down into the center of snapdragon blossoms to sleep. There they stay protected, so they can continue their valuable work, once the storms pass.

Nearly 30 percent of the 4,000 species of bees native to North America, including blue orchard bees and leafcutters, nest in the small tunnels of hollow plant stems during winter.

Unlike honey bees, that live in large colonies, these tunnel-nesting bees lead solitary lives. To make a nest, a female bee builds partitions made of mud, plant resins, leaf pieces or flower petals to divide the tunnel into a row of brood cells.

She fills each hollow plant stem cell with a mixture of pollen and nectar onto which she lays a single egg before sealing the cell and moving to the next one. Her offspring pass through the egg, larval, and pupal stages in the cell before emerging as adults to renew the cycle, usually the following year.

Leaving the dead plant stalks up over winter until March allow these important pollinators a chance to mature and emerge to start their life cycle again.

Several special events take place throughout the year at Pollinator Prairie during which visitors can learn more about pollinators and growing native plants. In June, they hold a week-long event that coincides with National Pollinator Week and, during the monarch migration in September, they host a monarch tagging event. In addition, new native gardeners can learn about transforming a patch of grass into a chemical-free pollinator garden.

Prior to working on the Pollinator Prairie project, Kingston herself was a new gardener with no prior experience or knowledge of native plants. Much has changed in the past six years.

“This place has become part of who I am. It’s been a big learning curve, but now I can tell you what you need to plant in a pollinator garden — and what we all need to do to take this into the future.”

Located at 320 S. Blake St., Pollinator Prairie is open year round to the public, free of charge. For more information, contact the Pollinator Prairie at pollinator.org/pollinator-prairie.