Women's Learning Circles produce pollinator-friendly education

Liz Stewart
Center for Rural Affairs

In 2019, an enormous influx of painted lady butterflies found their way to northeast Nebraska. They covered roadways, fields, and gardens. Driving through a kaleidoscope of painted ladies, sometimes called a flutter or swarm, on a rural road one evening, Lin Brummels was struck by the multitudes of them, not only on the road, but also in bean fields she passed.

“There were social media posts about trying to kill the butterflies, so they wouldn’t harm crops,” she said. “I’ve been interested in encouraging pollinators for several years, so I wanted to save these creatures and nurture them.”

This desire led Brummels to seek more knowledge on how to protect and provide safe havens for pollinators. One avenue of research brought her to the Center for Rural Affairs’ Women’s Learning Circles.

The center’s learning circles are peer group sessions that consider participants as the experts on their own production, farmland, and conservation needs. Information, experience, and resources are shared at each circle, allowing women to implement what they’ve learned into their own farm business or operation.

Over the course of six months, women like Brummels — landowners, beekeepers, and women interested in conservation, native pollinators, and native plants throughout Nebraska and beyond — were invited to attend the Women’s Learning Circles, specifically focused on pollinators.

This series began at the end of March 2020, with the final installment in September. Erin Schoenberg, project associate with the Center, led and organized the series.

“In 2020, we chose to expand the content covered in our women’s learning circles,” she said. “It was important to us that we continued to bring peers together in a casual and welcoming learning environment, and we helped women landowners and beekeepers match up and collaborate where and when possible. We also wanted to diversify the topics, speakers, and locations covered in these events to include a focus on native pollinators and plants, and unique value-added ag enterprises that are benefited by pollinator services.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions and directives, the learning circles were moved to an online platform. This change allowed women from many different locations to attend.

Brummels attended “Women’s Learning Circle: Nebraska’s Diverse Pollinators,” the second in the series, held virtually in May.

“One of the unexpected benefits of not being able to hold in-person events is making those events available to more people like myself,” she said. “I probably would not have traveled long distances to attend a field event this year, but was able to log on to my computer and participate from home.”

Brummels owns a small ranch outside of Winside, Neb., where she grows an organic garden, hosts honey beehives for a friend, and provides habitat for monarch butterflies. Her pasture grassland is inter-planted with native flowers and warm season grasses.

“The learning circle helped me understand how many people want to safeguard the environment,” she said. “There were lots of neat ideas about kinds of shrubs and perennial plants to add to the garden to attract pollinators.”

Doug Golick, associate professor of entomology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, led the 90-minute discussion focused on the diversity of pollinators in the state.

Other topics covered in the pollinator series included a focus on early blooming native plants for pollinators with Heather Byers, of Great Plains Nursery, in Weston, Neb.; a discussion on prairie restoration with Sarah Bailey, naturalist educator and greenhouse manager at Prairie Plains Resource Institute; and an in-depth look at bees with the owners/operators of Simply Sunflower Farm, near North Loup, Neb.

Though the learning circles differed from their usual format, Schoenberg was pleased with the turnout, and feels they were a success overall.

“There’s a growing interest in protecting and aiding pollinators, and these discussions helped participants become even more aware and give them real steps to take at home,” said Schoenberg. “As always, another benefit of these learning circles is the great networking opportunity. You never know who you’ll meet or what opportunities it will lead to.”

For more information on how to connect with others and learn more about pollinator friendly practices where you live, contact Schoenberg at erins@cfra.org.

Painted Lady Butterflies are just one of about 17,500 types of butterflies in the world.