KATE FAIN | MARCH 28, 2019
Of Vermont’s 17 bumblebee species, four have gone extinct, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Vermont and Vermont Center for Ecostudies researchers. This is an unprecedented loss, and it threatens the pollination of most crops in Vermont, such as blueberries, tomatoes and apples, even with nonnative honeybee populations.
The Vermont-based organization Bee the Change is working to combat some of the human causes for this rapid decline in insects by offsetting our footprint. Most of us work to offset the impact humanity has on the environment by turning off the lights and conserving water, but as Mike Kiernan, one of the founders of Bee the Change, tells me, “that’s an important part of the picture of the human footprint, but it’s not the entirety. The entirety realizes the space that we are occupying as a species.” According to recent North American bee studies, one of the principal reasons so many insect species are at risk for extinction is because the habitat they once enjoyed is being occupied by humans.
Pollinator insect species bring pollen from plant to plant, which allows for the plant’s fertilization. They are essential to the production of our food, and to the continued survival of many different bird, fish and mammal species. Bee the Change has realized the great consequences that will occur from the loss of our insects, and so they are “asking people to take a look at their footprint, and offset it. Take your 3,500 square feet, and create 3,500 square feet of pollinator habitat at a nearby field at a municipal building, somewhere at a school that’s not really being used.”
“Take up the turf grass, put down the seed mix.” — Mike Kiernan”
Right here in Hinesburg, one can see Bee the Change’s work in action at a solar field installed on Magee Hill by energy management company ENGIE North America Inc, alongside Encore Renewable Energy. ENGIE contracted Bee the Change to plant the field with vegetation that supports both native and nonnative pollinators. The field, called Magee Hill, also has a honeybee hive. Honeybees, while a boost to pollination in the area, are not a resource that Bee the Change believes the U.S. should rely on as much as we do. During California’s almond season, 1.8 million of our nation’s 2.5 million total honey bees are trucked to California. The concentration of their population puts them at great risk for contracting diseases, and those diseases are then distributed across the country, even to native populations, when the almond season ends. According to Mike, “the honey bee is not where we are looking to as a solution. We have a diversity of pollinators, so that’s where we should be betting.”
See Bee the Change’s work in action at a solar field on Magee Hill.
ENGIE agrees with Bee the Change in that our nation must prioritize fostering native pollination and restoring natural habitats in every space possible. Gavin Meinschein, lead civil engineer at ENGIE, tells me that “pretty much 100 percent of the sites we’ve developed over the last four years are pollinator friendly, or are restoring the natural area. It’s more about what makes sense for the region.” ENGIE’s end goal is to have a positive environmental impact, and they are working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Minnesota to figure out how they can quantify what the economic or environmental impacts are of their restorative project.
Gavin believes that this “is a very unique chance to use private money to do a public good. The estimates are something like 3 million acres of solar will be built between now and 2030, so the chance to restore 3 million acres of pollinator habitat … we don’t really know how big of a benefit that will be, but it has huge, huge potential.” Bee the Change certainly agrees — while we do not yet know exactly what, or how great, the impact of restoring pollinator habitat will be, it is a movement many of us are getting behind. Mike reminds us all that “a little bit of modesty, a little bit of circumspect, certainly on your own affect,” is important. Bee the Change measures the amount of unique pollinators encountered and plant species they help to grow on their fields “not just to validate, but to make sure that we’re not mucking it up utterly. We’re too soon in to know.”
Bee the Change will work with anybody and help them in any way.
While the long-term impacts are unknown, Bee the Change has surveyed the immediate effect they’ve had in a year since planting their first field. Before installation, there were 17 unique pollinator encounters. One year later, on the same date and conditions, they found 174 different pollinators. This increases plant productivity in the area, which helps support other species. In our own lives, Bee the Change urges us all to be more aware of the spaces we occupy, and what cannot be there anymore because we are. Bee the Change “will be happy to work with anybody and help them in any way. You can do the work or not do the work, we can consult for free. Anybody that wants to talk with us, we’ll travel and talk about it.” Whether it be in your own life, or helping nearby empty spaces make the change, there are many ways we can help support our native insect pollinators before it is too late.