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Inspiration for Pollinator Conservation: Protecting Waterways with Pollinator Habitat

By Julie Michaelson on 20. June 2024
Julie Michaelson

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 riparian buffers —  plants growing alongside rivers, streams, and ponds — along the Connecticut River Valley!


Small purple flowers on the long stem of a pickerelweed, with two bumble bees visiting them.
Aquatic and semi-aquatic plans, like this pickerelweed, also provide food for bumble bees and other pollinators. (Photo: Sara Morris)


Meet a Pollinator Conservation Specialist

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

Hi, my name is Julie Michaelson (she/her/hers), and I am a Pollinator Conservation Specialist and NRCS Partner Biologist. I help farmers and land managers create and manage habitat for beneficial insects like pollinators! I primarily work with livestock farmers in the Connecticut River Valley, in partnership with the American Farmland Trust and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This work is part of a 5-year project providing technical and financial assistance to livestock farmers interested in adopting regenerative agriculture practices!


How did you get started in your conservation career?

I started as an undergraduate research assistant in an entomology lab, rearing moths in a hot and humid closet. However, sometimes, we would head outside to find interesting insects in places like limestone quarries, powerline right-of-ways, or nondescript pull-offs along the highway.

In my head, I had imagined areas significant for wildlife conservation as these pristine “wild” areas and not in a little vegetated patch right behind a new housing development. Working with that group of entomologists made me think insects had conservation potential everywhere, and I just needed to learn what to look for!

I have been exploring and thinking about New England ecology since I was a kid, so when I started my current job at Xerces, my experience was a big help. But this was only a head start; I think even if you spend a lifetime in one place, it is impossible to understand or even know all of the species and interactions taking place around you!

What is the most challenging part about your job?

Species conservation doesn’t always have the time to wait until a perfect solution is found! It can be difficult to discern the best plan for conservation projects, and I find it easy to get caught in nuances. So, the best we can do is use the available information to explore alternatives and choose the option that has the most significant known benefit to wildlife.


Riparian buffers protect wildlife and the surrounding land

What are riparian buffers and how do they work?

A riparian buffer is made up of plants growing along the sloped banks of a river, stream, lake, or pond. “Riparian” refers to places adjacent to water, and the plants in these habitats act as a transition and barrier (or “buffer”) between the water and terrestrial habitat.  Riparian buffers can retain moisture throughout the dry season, making them a critical component of a resilient landscape that provides food and shelter for wildlife in various extreme conditions.

Like most transitional habitats, riparian buffers are important to a wide variety of wildlife. They support both terrestrial and aquatic, as well as semi-aquatic species that rely on both adjacent habitats. The vegetation in riparian buffers also helps slow down floodwater, absorbs runoff into their root systems, and filters out harmful contaminants like heavy metals from entering our waterways. Despite being less than 1% of the U.S. landscape, we depend on riparian buffers for flood control, wildlife habitat, erosion control, improved water quality, and countless other vital ecological services.

A stream winding past a cattle pasture. The stream is surrounded by planted tree saplings and small shrubs so that the bare pasture does not reach the stream, and a wire fence keeps the cattle from the plants.
Wire fences keep cattle from grazing on the plants of this riparian buffer. (Photo: USDA CC-BY)


What threats and challenges do pollinators face on riparian buffers?

One major threat is the loss of the riparian buffers themselves, due to human activity and development of the nearby land. This can destabilize and erode slopes. The creation of a new dam can also dramatically alter the river too much for wildlife and plants to survive. Climate change increases the risk of extreme flooding events, beyond what the habitat can handle. 
Unfortunately, riparian buffers are also  highly susceptible to invasive species. Waterways can quickly move invasive species to new regions, especially through frequent flooding events. Non-native plants can outcompete native species and alter the conditions of the body of water.


What is a project you worked on to protect riparian buffers?

During a site visit with a pasture-raised livestock farm, we encountered an area around a small stream, downstream of a pond and upstream of a wooded wetland, that had been heavily grazed for multiple years. Livestock traffic and foraging had destroyed the plants in the area around the stream, leading to erosion and water pooling. The wetland downstream of this area was also potentially suffering from increased build up of sediment and runoff from the livestock pasture.

The solution to rehabilitating the buffer was to plant native trees, shrubs, and grasses along the stream. We hope the plants will help keep the soil in place, prevent erosion, and filter runoff, all while providing forage and shelter for pollinators and other wildlife all year round. Livestock were still going to use the area around the small stream, so to protect the establishing plants and prevent further erosion the land manager plans to install fencing.

The project will be implemented this growing season, so we are waiting to see how it goes! I am curious to see if this planting helps with livestock pests by providing habitat for dragonflies. Small biting insects, like flies, can be very bothersome for livestock, but dragonflies are voracious predators of these insects!


A dragonfly holding onto a plant stem. Its body is maroon, with a long yellow stripe down its back.
Dragonflies, like this spangled skimmer, use riparian plants as a perch to scout for prey. (Photo: Julie Michaelson)


Riparian buffers are one of many ways farms can help pollinators

Why is it important to involve agriculture in pollinator conservation?

Land stewardship is part of being a farmer. The farmers I work with take this role very seriously because they understand how much our livelihood depends on pollinators. Agriculture accounts for approximately 50% of land use in the U.S., and management practices like pesticide use have far-reaching effects on adjacent habitats. The amount of land influenced means that if we want to conserve pollinator populations at a landscape scale, we cannot neglect agriculture

We want to find win-win solutions where insect populations and humans thrive. For example, pollinators and other beneficial insects provide critical ecosystem services like pollination and pest control, which help lower management needs and increase production in some agricultural systems. I work with livestock operations frequently, so we plan a lot of hedgerows or windbreaks that separate paddocks, buffer wind, and provide much-needed shade for livestock. Incorporating native trees or shrubs can turn a simple windbreak into a resilient and diverse habitat for wildlife like pollinators to use year-round!


How can folks who manage or work in agriculture get involved in conservation?

We have Xerces staff nationwide who work with farmers through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). You can contact your local USDA Service Center to get connected with a Xerces partner biologist in your state! 

How can everyone support pollinator conservation?

I love the Homegrown National Park movement led by Doug Tallamy and Michelle Alfandari. If you can focus on one place, whether that be a parcel of land, a balcony, or a tree, meaningful actions become evident and feasible. In culmination with other people’s efforts, these actions have a widely significant impact because we are making well-informed conservation decisions for the land and plants we have experience with.  So get to know the land around you well, and help make conservation decisions for your corner of the world!

One easy action people can take regarding riparian buffers is if you have access to a water body on your property, don’t mow up to the water’s edge! Leave a strip of vegetation to improve water quality and habitat for terrestrial and aquatic organisms. If you want to take the next step and the area needs restoration, plant native species and turn the riparian buffer into a wildlife haven!


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

The many benefits riparian buffers have beyond terrestrial organisms! Aquatic macro-invertebrates like dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies, and caddisflies utilize logs, leaves, and other organic matter that fall into the water from the riparian zone for shelter and food. Overhanging vegetation can also provide shade to the water below. In a river or stream, this is critical to maintaining colder temperatures and oxygen-rich water that supports diverse and abundant macro-invertebrate populations — which in turn support fish and bird populations, and so on up, down, and across the food web!

Learn more about pollinator conservation on farms

Resources for everyone


Resources for agriculture professionals



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