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Inspiration for Pollinator Conservation: Habitat Kits for Urban Farms and Gardens

By Stefanie Steele on 21. June 2024
Stefanie Steele

For Pollinator Week this year, we are talking with Xerces staff to explore their work collaborating with people to support pollinators on different types of agricultural landscapes. Bringing native plants and natural cycles back into such places has major benefits for pollinators and agriculture. Our third interview takes us to Detroit, where urban farms and gardens are vital resources for both pollinator and human communities!


Meet a Pollinator Conservation Specialist

Tell us about yourself and the work you do at Xerces!

Hi, my name is Stefanie Steele (she/her), and I am a Pollinator Conservation Specialist and NRCS Partner Biologist. I work primarily with very small-scale and urban producers in Detroit and the rest of southeastern Michigan. I provide on site technical assistance, education, and training on native pollinators and their habitats, such as with Xerces’ Detroit Pollinator Habitat Kit program and through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). I also help provide pollinator technical assistance nationally to the USDA’s People’s Garden Initiative program.


Stefanie, a black woman and mixed race with shoulder length curly hair and glasses, smiling and sitting on a bench in front of a newly installed pollinator habitat. Behind her is a structure for growing crops..
One of the organizations Stefanie works with is Green Boots Garden, which provides military veterans with training and experience in urban farming and gardening. This new pollinator habitat was installed in partnership with them. (Photo: Green Boots Garden)


How did you get started in your conservation career?

I was privileged to have grown up not far from a large urban forest in Cincinnati where exploring the trails and creek were a regular occurrence. My family, for many years, had a backyard garden, as did there’s before them, so the values and special relationships with nature and food were instilled in me from childhood.

My distinct interest in pollinator conservation started when I joined my high school’s bee club. We tended to honey bee hives on the school’s roof – this was during the mid 2000s, the height of colony collapse disorder news coverage. I continued on doing honey bee work off and on for the next several years until I moved from Cincinnati to Portland, OR and finished my undergrad at Portland State University. During this time I connected with the Masta Lab where my world of native bees and other inverts really opened. I studied native bees and  their cavity nest use across all different urban landscapes, including different community gardens, orchards, farms, and backyards. 


What is your favorite part about your job?

Working in-person with wonderful diverse communities, listening to their stories, and of course talking bees, bugs, and plants when they let me. I am so inspired by the communities I work with! I am thankful that they show up to make the world a little bit better, and that I can be a small part of that. 


Pollinators and farms belongs in urban areas too

What threats do pollinators face in urban areas?

One important threat that many pollinators face comes from people. In general, the leading perspective of people in the U.S. is still that yards and city land should be “tidy”. Farms, gardens, and sometimes even natural areas push these boundaries to a place where people may feel uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that there are many places with laws that exist to make it difficult to plant native flowers for pollinators, or even grow your own food. Myself and the urban growers I work with use their farm and garden spaces as a tool to educate and empower folks as to how we can transform our land to be more functional, sustainable, diverse spaces. 

 A small dark bee on a pale flower of a plant in the genus Rubus. Its body is iridescent, but only very dimly. From a distance it appears black, but up close it has some spots of brilliant green and blue noticeable.
Tiny, dark-colored native bees, like this small carpenter bee (Ceratina spp.) on a Rubus flower, often get overlooked by the public and not recognized as bees. Small carpenter bees can often be seen throughout the growing season, and nest in plant stems. Adding native perennials and strategically cutting their stems in spring will help these bees! (Photo: Sara Morris / Xerces Society)


What is a project you worked on to help pollinators on urban farms?

I help urban growers with planning and managing the native pollinator habitats they build through Xerces’ Habitat Kit program. One of my goals is that urban growers will see more and new kinds of pollinators, insects, wildlife, flowers, and have a deeper connection and understanding to wildlife. Many of the urban growers I work with also prioritize working with youth, and these new habitats will be a great place for them to learn and explore the wonderful world of nature.


What challenges do urban growers face with building pollinator habitat?

A problem I have been working on with urban growers is better understanding the range of support that they need to be successful, including how to make native habitats more appealing to their day-to-day operations. Urban growers are often limited with their growing space and  staff, so supplementary pollinator habitat could understandably be a lower priority for many.

We need to have more input from diverse urban producers who are interested in habitat about what resources would be most useful for them to be successful. I often hear that many urban growers are interested in providing habitat for pollinators on their sites, but lack the capacity to carry out a project. Proper site prep, planting, and on-going management can take an immense amount of work and coordination, which can be a difficult ask for many producers. Another difficulty is water access, which often is limited or inaccessible, but is a crucial resource for growing crops and to establish habitat.


How are you working with urban growers to overcome these challenges?

I am learning how to change my strategies and assistance to better meet urban growers’ needs and goals where they are. Often, this means making individualized plans, being more hands-on in habitat implementation, and creating new types of educational tools. From their feedback, I’ve learned that people would like more edibles and medicinal herbs, a planting layout guide with photos of their plants at different stages, and to connect more through pollinator habitat workshops and helping at the growers’ sites.

However, the most challenging part of my job is accepting that I am not always able to provide the level or type of support that urban growers want or need, with pollinator habitat or other challenges. Sometimes there are not necessarily other programs to assist them. This is particularly difficult when working predominantly with communities of color who historically have been excluded from conservation efforts and disproportionately affected by systemic racism, pollution, and more.


Four people, two white and two black, holding shovels and smiling while standing in front of a freshly weeded and mulched area for planting pollinator habitat. Behind them tarps protect a small plot of crops.
Even small patches of pollinator habitat, like this one underway at Keep Growing Detroit, can require a lot of planning, resources, and labor to implement. (Photo: Stefanie Steele)


Urban farms are a vital part of protecting pollinators

Why is it important to involve urban agriculture in pollinator conservation?

Urban agriculture communities are doing such important work, for both pollinators and people. They provide local, fresh, nutritious food to communities that otherwise may face barriers to accessing healthy food. They are also a source of educational and job opportunities for others to learn how to grow, prepare, and teach others.

Pollinator conservation perfectly compliments urban growers' work. Diverse native habitat will attract more pollinators to pollinate crops, and beneficial insects that will help keep crop pests in check. These habitats are also another wonderful opportunity to educate, reduce fear of insects, and add functional beauty to these spaces. 

The majority of the U.S. population lives in urban areas or cities. So it is very important that they also have opportunities to learn about conservation and wildlife, and that we as conservation professionals know how to engage people in urban communities. Living near each other we can learn and be inspired by one another. I remember hearing somewhere that people said that pollinator gardens can be contagious, even to those who are apprehensive and skeptical. We can build off each other's yards, gardens, parks, etc. to connect fragments of  habitat, and watch the wildlife return. 

How can folks who manage or work on urban farms get involved in conservation?

Growers (and other organizations) can submit a project proposal for one of Xerces’ Habitat Kits to build pollinator habitat in their spaces! Urban agriculture folks are also always welcome to contact me directly ([email protected]), our pollinator team ([email protected]), or check out our staff page to see who’s located near you!


How can everyone support pollinator conservation on urban farms?

If you are able, show up and support local community-based urban farms and gardens in your area! Many are looking to connect more with their local communities, either through participating in their events and workshops, sourcing produce or other goods, or volunteering on site to help with their mission.

We recognize that not everyone has the time and privilege to be able to commit their time to volunteer work, but if you are able, it is very rewarding work and you will learn something new every time. Please remember to always be a respectful guest on site!


If there was one thing you could make sure people knew about conservation on rangelands, what would it be?

There is so much to be learned from the rich histories, cultures, and lived experiences of urban farmers, gardeners, and the surrounding communities! Agriculture included, but also more broadly, such as their relationships with nature, community, food, social justice, and more. Learning from and working with people from different cultures and backgrounds offers new perspectives and knowledge, and I am so appreciative and grateful for the opportunity.

A pollinator habitat of wildflowers installed next to an urban farm.
Every piece of pollinator habitat, whether at an urban farm, yard, garden, or park helps form a larger, connected, network that supports wildlife. (Photo: Laura Rost)


Learn more about pollinators in urban areas

Resources for everyone


Resources for urban growers



Stefanie is the Pollinator Conservation Specialist for Urban and Small Farms in Underserved Communities and a NRCS Partner Biologist in the Upper Midwest – Detroit, Michigan area. Through this work, she provides technical assistance, planning, and education on incorporating pollinator and other beneficial invertebrate habitat in small urban agricultural areas and community gardens in historically excluded communities. Her work supports projects including the Xerces Habitat Kit Program, People’s Garden Initiative, and NRCS Conservation Programs through the USDA Farm Bill.  

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