The newest research shows that solar farms can help us to save bees from their rapid extinction by providing them with much-needed habitats. Starting from 2015-2016 several American bee species have been added to the endangered species list. The decline in the bee population has not just happened in the US, it is, in fact, a global issue. The bees are dying out worldwide and at such a rapid pace that many of them are classified as endangered. The most important factors that have contributed to the decline in bee populations in recent years are climate change, pollution, and destruction of their natural habitats. Since all of these causes have a common denominator, it was only logical to think of a solution that could solve all of these problems at once – hence the Solar Farm Solution.
NREL scientists Jordan Macknick and Jake Janski, from Minnesota Native Landscapes, are right now conducting a series of tests where the land underneath the photovoltaic arrays in a solar farm in Chisago County, Minnesota, is planted with various bee-friendly native wildflowers and plants. All in hope of attracting native bee species to this area. This is part of Aurora Minnesota Solar Project, which combines some of Minnestota’s largest solar farms with pollinator friendly plants.
As you all know, solar farms are great in producing large amounts of electricity in a way that is not polluting the environment and that is why they are a better alternative to, for example, coal power plants. But at the same time, solar farms take vast amounts of space, so the main idea was to additionally use this land and to convert it into much needed habitats for the declining bee populations. In that way, by returning them their habitats, we would solve one direct cause of the decline in the number of bees and directly help the two others – Climate Change and Pollution – to go away as well.
Why are bees important?
Bees are pollinators, which means that together with other different pollinator species (like some types of butterflies) they are essential not only for the pollination of wildflowers, but also for the pollination of agricultural crops as well. If we lose wildflower bees we will lose wildflowers too, which in turn will destroy the entire ecosystems of animals, plants and insects which depend on them – all leading to extinction on a massive scale. There are more than 20,000 different species of bees and some of them are domesticated and used as agricultural pollinators. It is estimated that bees and other pollinators pollinate almost 90% of flowering plants and 70% of the world’s main crops, as mentioned in a report by the Climate Institute.
If you want to translate this into dollars, we could say that between $235 billion and US$577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators, bees among them (Read the original source here). This is not a lonely voice. The study titled “Pollinators in Peril“ (pdf) which was published by the Center for Biological Diversity in February 2017 shows alarming results, stating that almost 25% of bee species are at risk of extinction.
This research reveals that:
“Among native bee species with sufficient data to assess (1,437), more than half (749) are
- Nearly 1 in 4 (347 native bee species) is imperiled and at increasing risk of extinction.
For many of the bee species lacking sufficient population data, it’s likely they are also
declining or at risk of extinction. Additional research is urgently needed to protect them.
- A primary driver of these declines is agricultural intensification, which includes habitat
destruction and pesticide use. Other major threats are climate change and urbanization.”
- So, the decline in the bee species is something that directly affects us all. If we allow for bees to become extinct, many plants are likely to follow.
How can solar farms help bees?
One of the major problems that we need to solve is providing bees, and other pollinator species such as bumblebees and butterflies, with safe and protected habitats. These species have lost their natural habitats, such as scrublands and wetlands, due to rapid, and sometimes unregulated, expansion of agricultural, industrial and urban land. On the other hand, solar farms are also taking large surfaces of land, which now can gain new additional purpose by planting a carefully planned mix of wildflowers on it.
Solar farms are usually built on gravel, but there is no reason why those could not be replaced with some pollinator-friendly plants and flowers, such as purple prairie clover and wild lupine for example. The idea was basically to kill two birds with one stone, to help save the environment with solar farms producing green energy, while using the shade and structure of solar panels to provide a home for bees and other pollinators as well.“If we can create some habitat where there wasn’t a habitat before, like on solar farms, we can likely have a positive impact,” says Scott McArt, an entomologist at Cornell University.
The trouble is that bees, butterflies and other pollinators require a large diversity of plants and flowers in order to thrive, so planting just one or two types of wildflowers is not going to cut it. In order for this project to be successful, we would need to provide a highly diverse plant community which will be protected from the use of pesticides and mowing. So, a planned seed sowing and creating of a diverse, personalized plant mix for each of native endangered bee species is a must.
Few reasons why solar farms are a great option for pollinator-friendly habitats
- Large amount of space
- Limited mowing
- No herbicide or pesticide applications
- Planned seed sowing to attract pollinators
- The project “Solar Farms for Bees “ has raised a considerable amount of both enthusiasm and support nation-wide, and scientists from National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimate that we can expect to convert more than six million acres of land to such facilities before 2050.
This project to save the bees has turned into national effort when Department of Energy joined as well. Together with investigating the best ways to use “pollinator-friendly solar power”, the researchers at Argonne National Laboratory from DOE have also created an interactive map which shows the amount of existing and planned utility-scale solar energy facilities by state. It also shows the amount of agriculture that depends on pollinators near those sites.
Of course, turning solar farms into pollinator-friendly habitats is not going to save the bees all by itself. Major changes in our way of life will need to occur for that to happen. But this is definitely a step in the right direction. Minnesota is one of the few states which were chosen for the initial testing period, but other states will join this effort in the future as well. We hope that in the coming years this project will really set it roots everywhere.