Plan Now for Supporting Pollinators

Bee City USA Helps Communities Bolster Their Buzzing Friends

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Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 5:41 pm

It is late December, the days are short, the temperatures chilly, and in much of the country plants and insects are dormant or headed south.

But to make sure they keep coming back, now is the time to start thinking about creating a robust environment for pollinators, said Phyllis Stiles, founder and director of Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA.

Stiles created the non-profit organization Bee City USA in 2012, after she and a steering committee in Asheville, N.C., decided to take meaningful action in light of disappearing honey bees and other species. After all, Stiles said, "one in three bites of food we eat is courtesy of insect pollination.

Equally important, 90 percent of all wild plants and trees rely on pollinators for the survival of their species. While less is known about native bees and other pollinators, we do know that entire species are disappearing at alarming rates as they battle most of the same enemies as honey bees — loss of habitat essential for food and shelter, diseases and parasites, and inappropriate pesticide use."

Stiles pointed out that U.S. honey bee populations are declining at an average annual rate of 36 percent or more. But honey bees are not the only bees in danger. "While honey bees may be more appreciated because we enjoy the honey and wax they produce and they can be moved to blooming crops for pollination services, the thousands of native bee species — bumble, mining, mason, sweat, alkali, orchard, carder, leafcutter, carpenter, long-horned, squash, sunflower, digger, etc. — also have been declining at alarming rates, and in some cases, going extinct."

In light of these dire developments, Stiles said the committee didn't want to simply develop a nice “certification” sign to raise awareness. They wanted an ongoing educational program that was sustainable and could work equally well in temperate locations such as North Carolina as they could in places like Iowa or New Hampshire or Oregon.

"We wanted to develop a paradigm shift in ornamental landscaping, from supply chains for locally native plants and seeds to the ways we manage pests. We needed to think about landscape besides just being pretty and tidy. We wanted to get involved in cities, counties and campuses working to change long term attitudes about landscapes."

Stiles said their group sought models for community-wide behavior change, and were attracted to Tree City USA. More than 3,400 communities nationwide are affiliates of this program, and Stiles said they helped as Bee City advisors early on.

Currently, there are 62 communities in the Bee City USA certification program. The Bee City USA program endorses a set of commitments, defined in a resolution, for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators. Incorporated cities, towns, counties and communities across America are invited to make these commitments and become certified as a Bee City USA affiliate, according to Stiles.

Hendersonville, N.C., has been a Bee City USA community for about three years. Tom Wooten is director of public works there. Part of his job is to oversee the Tree Board, which administers a written plan for the care, preservation and maintenance of trees and shrubs in public areas. Hendersonville has also been a Tree City USA member for around 30 years, Wooten said, so when they learned about Bee City USA, it seemed a good fit for what they already had in place. "We were aware of the importance of the tree canopy and preservation. Now we were able to think about the need for pollinator species for trees and plants. We started incorporating those kind of species into our projects."

Wooten said Bee City USA was an "easy sell" to officials in Hendersonville because there was already support for the Tree Board from the city council, both in terms of funding and through ordinances and regulations. Hendersonville has numerous pollinator beds with educational signage in several areas of town, including a new section along a greenway. Their plantings also include drought resistant native trees. Not only are these new plantings good for the pollinators and wildlife, the public works staff likes them too. "There is less maintenance on our part because these are areas we can mow around."

Wooten said, regardless of what sort of climate a community is located in, "it is important to plant native trees and plants that local pollinators can utilize."

Stiles suggests anyone interested in pursuing this designation should start by finding out who the other stakeholders are. "Find other organizations, individuals, city commissions or boards, parks and recreation groups, garden clubs, whoever might have interest in the cause. Then, share the application and resolution documents and convene meetings to discuss what is involved. See if it is worth pursuing, and if you have enough stakeholders. If you do, then talk to city officials, maybe the city manager, director of parks and recreation, department of public works, tell them about the program and ask if the city will take a look. Once you have the green light, then get into the details of who, what, when and where. Make decisions about the leadership team, which could be based at an existing nonprofit or with a city commission. You will always need a liaison back to the city, so you don’t get too far afield."

There is an application fee, which is scaled to the size of the city or county. There is also a fee for annual renewal of the affiliation. Stiles said Bee City USA will review draft versions of a city's application and resolution documents to be sure all information has been provided and "to head off any confusion." From there, they try to give approval or feedback within 48 hours.

The Bee City USA Resolution document is a formal agreement that indicates a community's willingness "to support and encourage pollinator habitat creation and enhancement on both public and private land." At the heart of these commitments is a desire to create or expand pollinator-friendly habitat. Stiles said this typically includes identifying city or county property that can be enhanced with pollinator-friendly plantings. The next step is to create a recommended locally native species list to include forbs, grasses, vines, shrubs, and trees and a list of local suppliers for those species. A "least toxic integrated pesticide management plan" should be developed. A plan to disseminate informational and educational materials to the public should be developed. Finally, the area of pollinator habitat created or enhanced by square footage and/or acreage should be tracked annually.

Other commitments include annually celebrating National Pollinator Week or some other appropriate occasion with educational events, pollinator habitat plantings or restoration, proclamations or promotions that showcase the community's commitment to enhancing pollinator health and habitat. Also, the community must install and maintain at least one authorized Bee City USA street sign in a prominent location, and create and maintain a web page that includes, at minimum, a copy of the resolution, links to the national Bee City USA website, contact information for the local government’s Bee City USA liaison, local contact information for the committee and reports of the pollinator-friendly activities the community has accomplished.

Renewing the application annually includes providing a brief narrative report on how they are meeting their commitments. "There are metrics about planting, awareness events and volunteers. This way groups can look back on how their efforts have moved them along and we can better understand the impact the program is having nationally," Stiles said.

The Bee City model has worked well for cities, so in 2015 Stiles and her group launched Bee Campus USA. This program follows the same application and renewal process outlined above. Stiles said college campuses have control over their landscaping in ways cities don't, with their mix of private and public property. For campuses, the committee is required to have a cross section of the campus as members. That includes students, faculty, grounds staff and administration. There are currently 31 affiliate campuses across the country, and the educational emphasis is more dominant than in the community programs. "The program must be incorporated into service learning programs and curriculum. Campuses also must have educational signage, for example, signs in the dining hall letting students know the relationship between diet and pollinators," Stiles explained.

An example of a Bee Campus is Portland (Ore.) Community College's Rock Creek campus. Sustainability Director Elaine Cole says there are four campuses across the city, but this one has an existing farm on campus that veterinary tech students help administer and run as their practical work. It is also the location of the college's landscape program. When Cole learned about Bee Campus USA she knew right away she wanted to bring it to campus. "We wanted to support the practical side of pollination but also to inform and advocate for pollinators, especially in light of colony collapse," Cole said. To form her committee, Cole reached out districtwide and drew in students, faculty and staff as well as other stakeholders like groundskeepers, landscapers, professors in sciences interested in pollinators, and other educators.

Part of the farm includes a learning garden, where there are sixteen 6x10 raised beds for community gardens for staff, students and faculty to grow food for free. Other areas of the learning garden are dedicated to growing produce for various markets in the community. Cole noted that when they started their first bee hives, "there were a lot of failures in the first year, and some of the bees died." However, she said, "as we have progressed into years three and four, we have an entire apiary with seven active hives this past summer, with viewing hives and educational hives." They even have a landscape technician who is a bee keeper.

Cole said the idea of bringing bees on campus had been under discussion for a period of time before she arrived. But she began to look at how to overcome the barriers that were preventing a bee program, and how to address them. Common concerns included safety, oversight and the risk of bee stings. "Once the president signed on and we dissipated common barriers, I don't think I've met a project that more people have embraced so quickly," Cole said. "This is a fantastic effort that has gone beautifully. So many people want to help bees in whatever way they can."

Cole acknowledged that some areas of the country have long cold winters with short growing seasons, compared to places like Oregon or North Carolina. Every geographic region has its challenges, though, and even Portland has the challenge of a long rainy season. At Portland Community College they winterize bee hives, put them under covers, and take other steps to keep the hives safe.

Even if a community or campus cannot come together as a Bee City or Bee Campus, there are still steps individuals can take, Cole said. "Plant a simple pollinator garden on a piece of property somewhere, get milkweed plants started this spring and flower species planned and planted. Don't buy pesticides. There are so many simple things we can do now that support pollinators."

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