The rapidly shrinking number of pollinators such as bees and butterflies is an issue of particular importance to Leesburg’s Lexi Howard, inspiring her to create an environmental education and restoration initiative called Project Pollinate.
“Unfortunately, we have a huge problem with the pollinator population,” Howard, a senior at Heritage High School in Leesburg, told the Times-Mirror. “I wanted to make a local difference.”
A self-described lifelong environmental activist, Howard has known for years that she wants to study and work in environmental science.
She is a member of the Youth Conservation Leadership Institute, a program of the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, which addresses environmental conservation needs in the county.
Around the start of this year, Howard became inspired to create a project focused on saving pollinators and native plants at the suggestion of her YCLI advisor, Jennifer Venable.
After conducting extensive research, Howard found just how important the planting of native plants and proper landscaping are in caring for pollinators, which include not just bees and butterflies but also birds, bats, moths, flies, beetles and even some small mammals, according to the Pollinator Partnership.
Pollinators, she said, “flourish” when they have native flora to pollinate, but when foreign, invasive plants are placed on native soil, they tend to overtake native plants and drive pollinators away.
“How we take care of our local gardens is a huge problem; pesticides and stuff like that is just killing off [pollinators], and that’s why you don’t see bees as much in your yard anymore,” Howard said.
“By saving and restoring native plant populations, we can help and restore the pollinator populations as well,” she added.
To heighten awareness of the issue in Loudoun, Howard incorporated both an education segment and an application segment of her project.
For the former, she set up informational booths at local plant nurseries and Rust Library in Leesburg, where she handed out pamphlets explaining the importance of native plants to pollinators.
Howard also gave visitors packets of milkweed seeds — which, when grown, make monarch butterflies poisonous to birds and help keep them alive — as well as stickers to engage children.
“You don’t pay for anything, we’re not asking for money, we’re not asking for fundraising,” she said. “All we’re doing is just saying, ‘Hey, feel free to take these handouts or at least listen to us for a second to hear about the problem.’”
As for the application portion of Project Pollinate, Howard and other members of the Heritage High School chapter of the Science National Honor Society — in which Howard serves as an officer — have engaged in wildlife restoration initiatives.
These included two separate meadow restorations at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Leesburg and the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship in Hillsboro.
During those projects, Howard and her fellow volunteers pulled invasive plants and planted native species “to help bring pollinators back,” she said.
Project Pollinate has offered Howard’s classmates in SNHS plenty of opportunities to fulfill volunteer hours, which she said has been tricky during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also engaged the local community in the project by having people in her neighborhood plant bluebells, which she said help attract pollinators after a cold winter and which do well in low-shade situations.
“It’s been really incredible to see people get really excited,” Howard said.
In the fall she plans to study environmental science at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she said she’s looking forward to “doing research that will help save the planet.” She hopes to work as either an environmental scientist, an ecologist or an animal behaviorist.
Another long-term goal of Howard’s is to start an annual Earth Day festival in the town of Leesburg, which would include educational opportunities for local children.
“I especially want young girls to get involved,” she said.
More information on Project Pollinate is available at bit.ly/Project-Pollinate.