California Olive Farmers Create Pollinator Habitats to Boost Biodiversity

Farmers are cultivating native plants to reverse the effects of climate change on beneficial insect and pollinator habitats.

By Thomas Sechehaye
Oct. 17, 2023 13:27 UTC

California olive grow­ers are increas­ingly com­bat­ing the impacts of cli­mate change by cul­ti­vat­ing native plants to cre­ate habi­tats for ben­e­fi­cial insects and pol­li­na­tors.

Since the 1980s, the Western Monarch but­ter­fly pop­u­la­tion has declined by more than 95 per­cent. More gen­er­ally, insect pol­li­na­tor pop­u­la­tions have dropped, likely due to cli­mate change, pes­ti­cides and habi­tat degra­da­tion.

Anything we can do to increase the pop­u­la­tion of native pol­li­na­tors not only ben­e­fits the olives but a wide range of other agri­cul­tural crops.- Don Cameron, vice pres­i­dent, Terranova Ranch

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is among the groups fight­ing against the decline in pol­li­na­tors, pro­vid­ing cli­mate-smart native plants to project part­ners.

Native habi­tat kits of more than 100,000 plants have already been pro­vided to 144 farm­ing part­ners in California between 2019 and 2021.

See Also:California Olive Farmers Embrace Regenerative Agriculture to Combat Climate Challenges

The Xerces habi­tat kits pro­gram in California matches peo­ple and places who want to plant and care for pol­li­na­tor and ben­e­fi­cial insect habi­tat with trans­plants of native plants with high con­ser­va­tion value,” Stephanie Frischie, an agron­o­mist for Xerces, told Olive Oil Times.

She added that the com­pany pro­vides tech­ni­cal assis­tance to farm­ers to make sure the solu­tions are long-term and sus­tain­able. The com­pany also helps farm­ers iden­tify the most well-suited species to their par­tic­u­lar loca­tion and source them locally to rebuild endemic habi­tats.

While Frischie advises farm­ers across Canada and the United States, Frischie said some of her ear­li­est research focused on olive groves in Spain through on-farm habi­tat research and projects, such as study­ing the suit­abil­ity of native cover crops for olive orchards in Spain.”

We found nearly a dozen high-pri­or­ity species, and I worked with a native seed grower to develop the sup­ply of those cover crop species,” Frischie added. I con­tinue to do this type of work in my role at the Xerces, increas­ing the seed sup­ply of plants that are of high value to pol­li­na­tors and other insects so more habi­tat can be cre­ated to add or enhance bio­di­ver­sity on farms.”

In Yolo County, Temecula Olive Oil Company is the hub where farm­ers can pick up Xerces habi­tat kits.

Even though olive trees evolved before the dawn of insects and do not need them for pol­li­na­tion – they are anemophilous [spread­ing pollen via the wind] – work­ing with Xerces and cre­at­ing more native pol­li­na­tors is impor­tant for many rea­sons,” Thom Curry, the owner of Temecula Olive Oil Company, told Olive Oil Times.


Annas Hummingbird (Calypte anna)

The most impor­tant ben­e­fits are plant and ani­mal diver­sity,” he added. A diverse com­mu­nity is much more resilient and healthy. Over time, our mono­cul­tural farm­ing prac­tices have had a detri­men­tal effect on the diver­sity and, there­fore, the over­all biome health.”

In the San Joaquin Valley, Don Cameron, the vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of Terranova Ranch, praised the kits. He said they helped him deter­mine which pol­li­na­tors would do well in his grove, tak­ing some of the risk out of the invest­ment.

I believe that any­thing we can do to increase the pop­u­la­tion of native pol­li­na­tors not only ben­e­fits the olives but a wide range of other agri­cul­tural crops that are depen­dent on insect pol­li­na­tion,” he told Olive Oil Times.

According to Frischie, cli­mate-smart native plants have far-reach­ing ben­e­fits for farm­ers and pro­duc­ers.

The habi­tat sup­ports birds and other wildlife, adds to soil car­bon and organic mat­ter and can improve water infil­tra­tion and water stor­age capac­ity of the soil,” she said. There are typ­i­cally more than 12 species of plants in each kit, which also add col­or­ful leaves and flow­ers to farm­scapes.”

For olive farm­ers specif­i­cally, Frishie said that habi­tat kit also cre­ates nat­ural envi­ron­ments for preda­tors of com­mon olive pests.


Cover crops and recov­er­ing native pol­li­na­tor sites help improve the tilth of the soil and lessen the amount of out­side inputs,” Curry added. Studies also show that these prac­tices also improve the amount of car­bon sequestered by the olive grove.”

Farmers take dif­fer­ent approaches to where to plant the kits.

Depending on the farm, the habi­tat kits may be planted along field edges or in other places near the olive trees or other crops,” Frischie said. For orchard species, cover crops in the lanes between tree rows are another way to add ben­e­fi­cial habi­tat to farms.”

Not only is there a ben­e­fit to the native pol­li­na­tors in the area by pro­vid­ing a food source,” Cameron added, but for instance, in plant­ing native pol­li­na­tor hedgerows, we have seen other ben­e­fits, includ­ing ero­sion con­trol in areas with slopes and sandier soils that main­tain the integrity of our lev­ees and road­sides.”

Some myths per­sist about native plants, pol­li­na­tion and restora­tion of insect habi­tats. For exam­ple, Curry said some peo­ple erro­neously assume that European and Africanized honey bees are the only or most effec­tive pol­li­na­tors.

These insects are inter­lop­ers and tend to push out native pol­li­na­tors with the assis­tance of the human prop­a­ga­tion of them,” he said. Creating a stronger native pol­li­na­tor pop­u­la­tion helps the native and non-native plants thrive much bet­ter.”

Some raise con­cerns that cul­ti­vat­ing native plant habi­tats for pol­li­na­tors in the olive groves could have side effects.

There’s some con­cern that the habi­tat areas may lead to larger pop­u­la­tions of rab­bits, hares or other rodents that could dam­age crops or farm infra­struc­ture, and snakes,” Frischie said. I’m not aware of evi­dence that shows these ben­e­fi­cial insect plant­i­ngs result in higher inci­dences of dam­age from these ani­mals.”

She added that October and November are an oppor­tune moment for olive grow­ers statewide to find the suit­able kit for them and begin plant­ing.

I am sure that it will become much more main­stream due to the efforts of Xerces and other such pro­grams,” Curry said. It seems that the prac­tice is really tak­ing off in the main­stream farm­ing com­mu­nity.”

Cameron agreed. I believe that by get­ting these kits out to olive grow­ers, they will find sim­i­lar attrib­utes to what I have seen and will con­tinue to invest in expand­ing projects on their farms to diver­sify habi­tats,” he con­cluded.

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