Andrea Rustad began to worry when she noticed fewer and fewer orange and black butterflies fluttering around her yard in Stillwater.
So last year, she decided to do something about it.
Rustad, 18, who graduated this month from Stillwater Area High School, started a Girl Scout project to create and promote habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Since starting the work, she has helped plant about a dozen pesticide-free gardens in Washington County and created educational curriculum for local schools so that "kids will learn about the roles of monarchs," she said.
Rustad's project, titled "Feed and Flutter: Promoting Monarch Habitats," was considered so outstanding that she recently won the Girl Scouts' Gold Award, a top honor bestowed on only about 5 percent of eligible girls in scouting.
Rustad is one of several Washington County students involved in combating the decline of pollinator populations threatened by habitat loss and the use of pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids — a type of insecticide linked to the demise of bees and monarch butterflies.
"I know this is kind of cliché, but as young people we are in charge of the future, and monarchs and other pollinators play a huge role in our daily lives," she said. "Some people don't realize how important they are."
Laurie Schneider, co-president of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance, a group of local beekeepers and concerned citizens, does.
Schneider said she recruited Rustad last fall to join the alliance, which introduced a resolution before the Stillwater City Council in September — Rustad wore sparkly butterfly wings at the meeting — calling for the city to stop using harmful pesticides and begin planting pollinator-friendly gardens in some of its parks.
City officials passed the measure in April, and Stillwater joined several other metro cities — including Shorewood, St. Louis Park, Lake Elmo and Andover — that have pledged to become pollinator-friendly.
Schneider said the alliance won a $5,000 grant earlier this spring that has allowed it to begin planting gardens to attract bees and butterflies. The organization has already planted gardens in Northland, Ramsey Grove and Triangle parks in Stillwater, and plans to plant other pollinator forage areas in and around the city.
Rustad was at Ramsey Grove Park hours before her high school graduation, planting milkweed and native plants. She said she plans to continue planting the gardens with other members of the alliance until she leaves home in the fall to attend Boston University.
Over the past year, four Washington County high school students have studied how bees survive the state's frigid winter weather.
The students, in grades 8-11, are participating in an educational program called the 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge, sponsored by the University of Minnesota.
The program challenges teens to identify an agricultural issue in Minnesota and find a science-based solution to that problem, said Kristin Weeldreyer, who oversees their work. The students began researching factors that contribute to successful "overwinterization" of bees in Minnesota. With the help of Dustin Vanasse, a professional beekeeper and owner of a Maplewood-based company that produces honey, the group began collecting data.
The project goal is to collect data on beekeeping practices, organize and analyze it, and make it available for the public. The teens are scheduled to present their findings at the university Thursday and Friday.
Blair Emerson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.