Updated: Feb 15
02/12/2021- Honey bees (apis mellifera) have been struggling to thrive due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and one of the leading factors in CCD is habitat loss.
Now you may drive around and see lots are areas with vegetation, but most of this vegetation is a dessert for the bees. Corn, soybeans, mowed ditches, mostly grasses, are not good sources of nectar or pollen for honey or native bees. And the flowers that you do see offer only short windows of nutrition for the bees.
There have been several studies done on the need for a diverse mixture of nectar sources for the pollinators to ensure their optimum nutrition levels. In a recent publication the University of MN Extension stated-
"There is not enough bee forage (plants that the bees can make food from) in Minnesota to support the nutrition and health of more colonies. Honey bees get all their nutrition from floral nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein and lipids). With the increase in acreage of soybeans and corn, which produce little or no nectar and pollen for bees, the number of beekeepers and bee colonies is diminishing. Honey yields in MN, now around 50-70 lbs/ hive, which is half of what it was 20 years ago. This decrease in honey production corresponds to changes in agricultural practices which have resulted in less blooming clover, alfalfa, and other flowers."
Where there once were hedge-rows between fields filled with all types of wildflowers and nectar sources, there is now just mowed grass or more field. We have pushed the limits of our diverse eco-system and bees are one species paying the price.
Solar Fields Offer Help
Throughout the country, including the upper Midwest. Solar energy fields are popping up all over MN and WI to help with increased energy demand and to help utilities with carbon reduction mandates imposed by the states they operate in. This has been a win on many levels, such as-
Reduction in energy costs- Solar is now one of the cheapest ways to produce electricity, and has become cheaper than coal in the last few years.
Reduction in utility grid demand- from approximately 11am - 5pm utilities see their largest spike in energy usage (demand) and it happens that electricity produced by solar closely mimics those same times helping greatly reduce a utilities needs for peaking plants, which is often the most expensive type of electricity.
Carbon Reduction- Solar produces electricity from the Sun's energy and they do so for 30+ years. In fact Alliant Energy in WI recently announced plans to close its last coal fired power plant in WI by 2024 after its plans to generate 1,000 megawatt hours of electricity from solar in the state by 2023.
From a bee habitat perspective, this is great news as on average for every 1.3 megawatt hours produced, 5 acres of land is needed. So for Alliant's plans alone, that means that 3,846 acres will be devoted to solar energy production. In almost every occasion, this takes land that was once leased for agricultural land and is now leased by the power company for solar generation over 25-30 years. And because of the standard practices adopted by corn and soybean farmers, this land is typically void of any bee habitat and the soil is often lacking the nutrients that it once contained.
Soil and Habitat Regeneration
With many of the solar development plans in place and something that is becoming standard practice, is to plant pollinator habitat in and around the solar fields. Opening up thousands of acres of new diverse pollinator habitat and helping bring better nutrition to local honey bees as well as native bee species.
As well, the soil begins to heal itself after years of nutritional stripping from mono culture practices, helping provide a richer soil for future farming activities. Some of the solar developers are also bringing small livestock into the fenced off solar fields to aid in the soil regeneration and provide a diverse mixture of native plant feed for the livestock.
How You Can Help
You don't need hundred of acres to help, and in fact there is an argument to be made that smaller plots with bee habitat spread out, may help the bees better than isolated large plots of bee habitat.
Taking a section of your property and planting perennial wildflowers that will provide the nutrition bees need is a great way to get started and your State DNR is a great place to start, to ensure you're not planting an invasive species.