Cities Hold Key to Saving the Bees

Advocate Calls for Bee-Friendly Parking Lot Designs

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Danielle Bilot is an American Society of Landscape Architects associate and a consultant on urban habitats who advocates for native bees.

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2016 12:13 pm

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Despite this dire warning, sometimes dubiously attributed to Albert Einstein, America’s natural and commercial bee populations continue to decline dramatically, decimated by pesticides, pathogens, parasites, harsh weather, disappearing pollinator habitats, and climate change — all of which seem to be contributing to the mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.

For Danielle Bilot, we don’t have to be “Einsteins” to recognize that there are serious problems facing bees.

Bilot, an American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) associate and a consultant on urban habitats, said too many people think bees only sting, swarm and make honey. Most picture the commercial honeybee, which actually isn’t native to the U.S., but was brought here by Europeans in the 18th Century. Native Americans called them “white men’s flies.”

“Actually there are about 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S. alone, the most familiar and largest being bumblebees and Carpenter bees. Bumblebees especially could have a significant impact on maintaining and even increasing pollination,” she said, adding that four bumblebee species have declined 96 percent in the last 20 years.

A native of Milwaukee, and a 2013 graduate of the University of Oregon, Bilot has developed and implemented her own two-pronged approach to saving the bees and staving off a crisis in essential pollination of America’s food supply.

First, she is traversing the country as a consultant working with cities to create urban pollinator habitats primarily on the islands and borders of parking lots and transit corridors. Second, she is committed to expanding bee knowledge by working with organizations like ASLA, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and the North American Pollinator Protection Program (NAPPC). She is also preparing to launch her own website,, in June, just in time for National Pollinator Week from June 20-26.

“We face so many environmental and sustainability challenges and sometimes it gets so overwhelming," said Bilot. "People tend to over-complicate the bee problem and, thus, fail to take action. For me, increasing pollinator habitats for native bees in the cities, especially with the growth in urban agriculture, is simple and easy, and costs virtually nothing.

“We replace or add to existing landscaping with bee-friendly plants and flowers and make it easy for them to survive and increase their populations,” Bilot explained.

As a graduate student at Oregon, Bilot knew she wanted to do her thesis on the food system. “Other students mainly chose topics focusing on urban agriculture, but I was thinking, ‘What can all of these things about food not live without?’ Of course, it was bees.”

Her thesis thought process led her to realize that most urban areas have a lot of surface parking lots. “If every city would just change their parking lot standards to require pollinator friendly plants, think how that would help bees who can’t fly very far before they need food, among other limitations.”

She said she focused on creating native bee habitats within cities because they possess fewer barriers than rural agricultural lands. The needs of native bees "cannot be met within our current agricultural context, especially because of the high use of pesticides and insecticides (particularly neonicotinoids, which comprise 25 percent of the global agrochemical market), as well as low genetic diversity and compaction of habitats,” she said.

There are other problems — a lack of year-round food, removing too much honey from the hives before winter, feeding bees with multi-vitamins or high fructose corn syrup, weaker immune systems caused by breeding from a limited number of queens and a lack of pollinator plant diversity, mostly through farmers raising the same crops.

But the bottom line, said Bilot, is the money. “California’s $3 billion almond industry spent about $294 million in pollination services in 2014 alone. Native bees essentially work for free!”

Bilot chose America’s fourth largest city, Houston, as her beta site because it had the largest concentration of surface parking lots — 18 percent. As she worked for the Houston landscape architecture office of Kudela & Weinheimer by day, at night she consulted with the city’s Parks Department to develop her prototype native bee pollinator friendly framework.

“Bees need to see or smell their food. They cannot forage, nest or travel through a fragmented landscape lacking flowers. Native bees, which can pollinate with a 91 percent efficiency compared to commercial bees with only 72 percent, are limited by how far they can fly,” said Bilot, adding that small species can go 200 yards, large bees as far as a mile.

Native bees are not fussy. They can exist on a general floral diet and are particularly attracted to clumps of flowers on the blue end of the spectrum, but they will pollinate many colors, shapes and sizes.

Bilot’s site design includes a variety of year-round food foraging plots measuring 15 to 18 square feet. Eighty percent are for foraging and 20 percent for nesting (75 percent ground and 25 percent wood.) In Houston, the framework creates a corridor that easily allows bees to travel into the city from rural areas and vice versa.

"The framework I created can be easily applied to a variety of situations, but we need to save the bees now and cannot wait for an overhaul of our agricultural system," Bilot wrote in a 2014 ALSA blog.

"Urban areas have their own challenges in creating integrative biological solutions, but cities are in a unique position to create a safe haven for pollinators because of the quantity and dispersal of underused land use types. Roadside strips, medians, surface parking lots, etc. all possess great potential to contribute positively toward natural ecosystems, but currently most hold very little ecological value. We have forgone diversity in the urban landscape for ease of permitting/maintenance, mass plant production techniques, and over-manicured aesthetics," Bilot wrote.

“Unfortunately, while native bees do not produce honey, their value as pollinators is undeniable. Their needs are simple — they require food year-round and bare ground or a soft wood patch to live in. If native bees are so great, why aren’t they being used for pollination efforts on a large scale already,” questioned Bilot.

“The edge that honey bees have over native bees is that we can attach a dollar amount to honey bees’ ecosystem services for both honey and pollination. Having a hive makes them portable and quantifiable,” wrote Bilot. “Apiarists can charge a flat rate per hive and know how much area a hive can pollinate and roughly how much honey that will result in.”

Established in 1971, the Xerces Society played a major role in the passage of America’s Pollinator Habitat Protection Act, which allows existing conservation efforts to provide enhanced habitats for pollinators. The society also collaborates with the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin to provide the best pollinator-attracting plants for each part of the U.S.

“That’s something everyone can use to make sure their own gardens attract native bees,” said Bilot.

Currently, Bilot is living in Denver where she is helping the city to establish its urban/rural pollinator framework, and is also consulting with Huntington, W.V. “I’m also presenting at my sixth conference, this one for the American Institute of Architects in mid-May, and gearing up for the NAPPC’s Pollinator Week from June 20 to 26.”

For Bilot — who is literally as busy as a bee — the keyword is “do.”

“When we read about the bee problem, we see words like ‘identify,’ ‘understand,’ ‘determine,’ and ‘research.’ These are not action plans. Even when ‘action’ is mentioned, some of the measures have existed for years already.

“Our food supply is in jeopardy,” she said, “and that alone should bring people together to push for action to help pollinators thrive. What if you went to Chipotle and there was no salsa or guacamole? You think carnitas coming off the menu is tragic? Just wait to see the revised menu if bees perish…”

In 2015, the Obama administration became the first to address pollinator decline by announcing the White House Pollinator Research Action Plan and the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health.

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