The hives at Battery Park's BeeVillage.

Photo by gigi_nyc via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How to Turn Cities Into Pollinator Sanctuaries

Curtailing light pollution, starting a seed library and other ways metro areas are bringing pollinators back.

Story by Jodi Helmer

Published on

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Protecting Pollinators: How to Save the Creatures That Feed Our World,” by Jodi Helmer, published by Island Press. In it, Helmer talks about the environmental threats that have put birds, bats, bees and other pollinators in peril, and put the global food supply at risk. She also reports on the most promising conservation initiatives. In this excerpt, Helmer outlines the strategies several cities have taken (including New York and Charlotte) to lure pollinators back. (For more Next City coverage, see “What Can Bees Teach Us About Building Better Urban Ecosystems?”)

At the tip of Manhattan, across the harbor from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a popular public park provides refuge for tired and huddled masses of pollinators. The Battery (known to most New Yorkers as Battery Park) encompasses 25 acres and includes the Castle Garden Emigrant Depot, where 8 million immigrants were welcomed into New York between 1855 and 1890 (before the Ellis Island Immigrant Inspection Station was built). Battery Park is also home to an urban farm, gardens and a bee sanctuary called BeeVillage.

Like the immigrants who landed in New York a century ago, honeybees are foreigners that now call the United States home. European colonists brought the bees in during the 1700s — perhaps some arrived at ports in New York. The connection between the nonnative bees and the first waves of immigrants provides docents at the Battery Conservancy opportunities to talk about the risks facing these insect immigrants, such as environmental and climate change. With more than four million visitors buzzing about the Battery every year, there are opportunities to spread the message far and wide.

“The Battery … created a biodiverse habitat that not only attracts people but also bees, birds, and butterflies,” notes Honeybee Conservancy director Guillermo Fernandez. “The honeybees have become an educational magnet and an engaging attraction.”

To further draw attention to the hives, volunteer beekeepers from the Honeybee Conservancy designed each of the three hives to resemble iconic New York architecture: one hive resembles a tenement apartment building and another was transformed to look like the John Bowne House, a historic home that dates back to 1661, making it the oldest home in Queens. Pollinator gardens surround the apiary to provide plenty of habitat for the bees. Bees help pollinate the flowers, which include asters, blueberries, and spicebush.

BeeVillage also provides nesting sites for solitary bees and has earned designation as a certified Monarch Waystation, welcoming migrating butterflies to stop to rest or nest in the lush gardens surrounding the labyrinth.

Honeybees are also welcome to take refuge in hives at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan. The church is home to a second BeeVillage, where two hives are set among the gardens. One of the queens is called the Divine Queen. Thanks to shrinking habitats, creating bee sanctuaries is more important than ever.

Stitching Together a Patchwork of Habitats

Although establishing pollinator habitats on individual farms is important, stitching together a critical mass of safe, appropriate places for fragile species to find food, shelter, and nesting sites is essential.

It’s not just that habitats are disappearing; the distance between them is increasing, making it harder for pollinators to make long treks. Fragmentation, which breaks up continuous stretches of habitat, might be as devastating to pollinators as losing their homes altogether — but the effects are under-studied.

Research shows that bats that roost in tree cavities are more vulnerable to fragmentation than cave-roosting species; some species of bats decline in response to fragmentation, but others thrive. The abundance of pollinator species is lower in fragmented habitats, which might lead to lower fruit- and seed-setting in smaller habitats, limiting pollination.

Habitat fragmentation is especially troublesome for monarch butterflies. The featherweight pollinators travel up to 100 miles per day during their annual migration from eastern North America to the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico or from western North America to California. During the arduous trek to their overwintering sites, the iconic black, orange, and white butterflies depend on roosting sites. Illegal logging in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, the area in central Mexico where millions of migrating butterflies spend the winter, has led to deforestation that exposes monarchs to wind and cold temperatures, leading to their death.

In a statement about the impact of deforestation on monarch populations, Chip Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, said, “It’s so truly spectacular, one of the most awe-inspiring phenomena that nature presents to us. There is no way to describe the sight of 25 million monarchs per acre — or the sensation of standing in a snowstorm of orange as the butterflies cascade off the fir trees. To lose something like this migration is to diminish all of us.”

Patches of pollinator habitat aren’t just important for migrating butterflies; the plantings also provide places to feed and nest for the species that stick closer to home. Stitching together a patchwork of habitats was one of the goals of creating the North Carolina Butterfly Highway.

With the bells from the light-rail crossing ringing in the background, Angel Hjarding, director of pollinator and wildlife habitat programs for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, dressed in a gauzy butterfly- printed scarf, points out the pollinator plants at First Ward Park in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation Department established the four-acre park on the site of a former parking lot, the raised beds were filled with traditional landscape plants like fescue grass (Festuca), Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) and bush clover (Lespedeza bicolor) that, while popular, provided no value to pollinators. “The commercial landscape industry never stops to ask, ‘Who’s eating this?’ We need to start thinking about how we address the needs of pollinators in urban areas, and habitat is one important option,” explains Hjarding.

In 2017, Hjarding suggested using grant funds to replace 3,000 square feet of “useless” plants in First Ward Park with alternatives such as milkweed and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) that provide nectar and habitat for butterflies and other pollinators. The pilot project turned into a flagship public site on the North Carolina Butterfly Highway.

Now, walking along the paved path between raised beds and the great lawn as traffic whizzes past, Hjarding explains the need for the collection of pollinator habitats that make up the Butterfly Highway: Charlotte added more than 15,000 residents in 2016, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, and development has kept pace. In June 2017, more than 2,000 new residential units were under construction in the downtown area alone. Exploding development means less pollinator habitat and longer distances between available habitats.

By planting “pollinator patches” in Charlotte — and throughout North Carolina — Hjarding hoped to provide a network for fragile populations to congregate. She recruited fifty households in five neighborhoods to kick-start the North Carolina Butterfly Highway in 2015. The project has grown to include 1,700 patches of habitat at parks, government buildings, community centers, and residential yards. (Around the same time when Hjarding launched the North Carolina Butterfly Highway, former Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, creating a new landscape ordinance that required at least 50 percent of all new trees, shrubs, and ground cover planted as part of city projects in Charlotte to be native plants.)

The Butterfly Highway moniker is a bit misleading, Hjarding admits: unlike roadside habitat projects, the North Carolina Butterfly Highway isn’t connected with an actual road. Instead, it’s a series of interconnected habitats that help pollinators travel from one place to another, creating a path of habitat. The original participants decided to call it the Butterfly Highway — but it’s not just for butterflies.

Hjarding explains, “I asked, ‘What about the Bee Highway or the Pollinator Highway?’ and their response was ‘No bees in my neighborhood!’ and ‘What’s a pollinator?’ — but people love butterflies. It triggered memories for them. People said, ‘I remember seeing butterflies in my childhood, but now I don’t see them as much,’ so there was a cultural connection.”

That connection helped Hjarding recruit participants eager to plant pollinator habitat on their properties. The habitats range from small raised beds filled with nectar plants in residential yards and apartment complexes to more ambitious projects like the plantings at First Ward Park.

“Are these small-patch habitats important? Yes,” Hjarding says. “Can we save pollinators by putting in these pit stops on balconies and in backyard gardens? Probably not. But these small patches in combination with land conservancies and even our game lands are all about not altering the landscape into development … and the other part of this that’s important is creating connectivity in the landscape to address habitat fragmentation.”

Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, encourages homeowners to think of their yards as individual squares in a patchwork of pollinator habitats. “I think about whether each little square is fracturing habitats or connecting habitats,” she says. “If every little yard is connected to every other little yard, homeowners can provide pockets of habitat, because if we’re going to replace [existing habitats] with homes, then those homes have to fill in the gaps. If everybody participates, it will work.”

City Side Effect: Firefly Burnout

Above: Firefly photo by Katja Schulz (CC BY 2.0)

Childhood memories of chasing fireflies after dark might soon be a forgotten pastime.

Fireflies (Coleoptera: Lampyridae) — also called lightning bugs — glow like Christmas lights because of a chemical reaction: a compound called luciferan in their abdomens mixes with oxygen, calcium, and adenosine triphosphate to produce light. More than 2,000 species of these illuminated pollinators use their bioluminescent backsides to attract mates, scare predators, and claim their territories. Firefly populations are in decline as a result of habitat loss.

There is little data about their populations. Researchers at Michigan State University studied the eastern firefly (Photinus pyralis) in ten communities between 2004 and 2015 and found the twinkling fireflies (which aren’t flies at all — they’re beetles) prefer undisturbed habitats such as fields. A study published in the Journal of Insect Conservation noted negative correlations between urbanization and lightning bug abundance.

In addition to eliminating nesting sites and nectar sources, development also increases light pollution. While it’s unclear how artificial illumination affects fireflies, studies have linked increases in light pollution to decreases in firefly populations. Most species of fireflies start flashing between twelve and sixteen minutes after sunset. Fireflies tend to increase their flight altitude as light levels decline, suggesting that the species is sensitive to slight changes in ambient light. Research published in the Coleopterists Bulletin, the journal of the Coleopterists Society, examined the impact of artificial night light on fireflies at six sites in Maryland. The number of flashes per minute was recorded under natural moonlit conditions; artificial light was added on subsequent nights. The light was more intense than a full moon but less intense than a streetlight. The presence of artificial light was linked with significant declines in flash frequencies, with the number of flashes per minute declining 50 percent. If artificial lights make it harder for fireflies to spot each other’s glowing backsides, it can disrupt mating and, in turn, cause population declines.

Pollinators Are Moving to Bee City, USA

A nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina, came up with a creative plan to entice pollinators to move into local neighborhoods: establish Bee City, USA.

The program encourages communities to create public-private partnerships to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators and provide sustainable habitats filled with native plants and maintained with minimal use of pesticides. The “open source” model allows cities to adopt the program to meet the unique needs of their communities (and their pollinator populations), and adapt it to work in public and private spaces ranging from parks, schools, and libraries to neighborhood associations — all with a goal of making the world safer for pollinators, one city at a time.

To date, sixty-six cities in twenty-four states, including Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Carson City, Nevada, and Boone, North Carolina, have earned the designation Bee City USA. Bee City Canada launched in 2016 and has registered ten cities so far. Interest from universities led to the creation of “Bee Campuses” to recognize institutions for their pollinator protection efforts. There are thirty-seven (and counting) registered Bee Campuses across the nation.

The goal is not to have communities undertake large fundraising efforts to develop beautiful gardens. Instead, Bee City USA encourages cities to work with their existing resources, noting: “Pollinators don’t need showplaces; they need food (pollen and nectar) and places to mate, nest, and overwinter.”

Awareness campaigns emphasize the importance of suitable pollinator habitat, urging communities to remove invasive species and use alternatives to toxic pesticides. They also call public attention to seasonal changes and the need to pitch in to ensure the survival of essential pollinator species.

“I think about whether each little square is fracturing habitats or connecting habitats. If every little yard is connected to every other little yard, homeowners can provide pockets of habitat, because if we’re going to replace [existing habitats] with homes, then those homes have to fill in the gaps. If everybody participates, it will work.”

Want to plant a pollinator garden? Head to the library. In addition to housing collections of books to help choose the best plants and identify the pollinators that alight on the colorful petals in search of nectar, some libraries also operate “seed libraries” that allow cardholders to check out seeds for their gardens.

Unlike library patrons who borrow books, those who borrow seeds aren’t expected to return them (although gardeners are welcome to collect seeds and donate them back to the libraries to keep the collection growing). The native-plant seeds are designed to attract a range of pollinators.

Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, offers several native wildflowers, including bee balm (Monarda punctate), ironweed (Vernonia angustifolia), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate). The Vancouver Public Library operates seed libraries at four of its urban branches. The Ramsey Library at the University of North Carolina Asheville started a seed library in 2018.

Barb Svenson, collection and resource management librarian at the Ramsey Library, envisioned the seed library as a community resource that could increase pollinator habitats across the city of Asheville. With the help of a library colleague, Wendy Mullis, she collected seeds from campus pollinator gardens. The pair cleaned and dried twelve varieties of seeds, including asters and echinacea, and offered them to the public free of charge. The project was a hit. “We had a great response from the campus and the community at large,” Svenson says. “We’ve had several people asking when we’ll do it again.”

Sponsor A Hive, Save a Bee

Beekeeping is expensive. The initial startup costs — beehives, tools, and packages of bees — means that organizations such as schools, nature centers, and food banks interested in using beehives as teaching tools often cannot afford to start programs.

To help advance bee conservation, the Honeybee Conservancy has launched a Sponsor-A-Hive program. Organizations receive equipment as well as honeybees, mason bees, or leafcutter bees.

The Honeybee Conservancy calls bee houses “science classes in a box” that inspire about science, environment, agriculture, and pollination. The bees are often incorporated into school gardens, pollinator patches, and wildlife habitats, where their presence helps pollinate flowers and vegetables and bolster bee populations.

“Beekeeping is an expensive undertaking and we feel that people should be able to be involved, regardless of their income level,” says Honeybee Conservancy’s Fernandez. “Sponsor-A-Hive advances bee conservation and empowers underserved communities with bees and the education and tools needed to support local agriculture.”

Since its 2016 inception, the nonprofit has provided bee houses to partner organizations (after they undergo a rigorous application process) in 165 cities. The recipients become passionate stewards for bees, helping raise awareness of the threats facing important pollinators and how their communities can help.

Adapted from “Protecting Pollinators: How to Save the Creatures That Feed Our World,” by Jodi Helmer. Copyright © 2019 Jodi Helmer. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, business, pets, and health. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, Civil Eats, National Geographic Traveler, AARP, Farm Life, WebMD,
Health, CNNMoney, and Guardian Sustainable Business. She is the author of four books, including The Green Year and Farm Fresh Georgia. Helmer also teaches writing workshops, offers
one-on-one consulting, and speaks at journalism conferences to help other writers achieve their goals. When not writing, she grows vegetables and raises bees – while trying to keep a pack of rescue dogs (and the occasional foster) from poking their noses in the beehive or stealing ripe strawberries from the garden. She splits her time between Charlotte and Boone, North Carolina.

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