Steve Clark’s movements appeared to vibrate an endless amount of energy and delight – sort of like the bees he’s attempting to draw to Clark College’s lawns.
“I’m literally freaking out right now,” the biology professor said during a demonstration Tuesday, promptly scooping a handful of wildflower seeds from a fabric sack.
Students and faculty from Clark College gathered around him, intently listening to a deluge of amusing bee facts and proper sowing instructions.
Though Clark – the lively professor – didn’t carry a glitzy stretch of fabric or reflective shears, he considered the event a ribbon-cutting of sorts. It commemorated the beginning of Clark College’s trajectory to becoming a Bee Campus, an accreditation that reflects an institution’s dedication to creating and conserving native bee habitats.
Native bees are typically solitary creatures. They find solace in hollow reeds, trees and soil instead of a hive densely populated with a colony, which also means they don’t produce honey or wax. Still, their presence is sweet and significant in the ecosystem, making the insects indispensable.
And Tuesday’s wet conditions were perfect for planting with the creatures in mind.
Sporting a red jacket, Clark was a colorful blur among the exposed brown soil and golden grass as he methodically demonstrated the sowing process. A handful of seed went a long way – about 10 paces, to be exact. Anything more and it would be too much like rice at a wedding, he said.
It was important that the plants are native, as they don’t require fertilizers to grow abundantly and are equipped to handle the Pacific Northwest’s climate cycles.
With the wind to their backs, participants followed suit and glided along their respective line, drawing circles in the air and scattering seeds with each completed ring. In unison, fat raindrops pounded them into the soil.
Clark College will have a handful more of these sectioned-off habitat zones, many of which will be in grassy areas along Fort Vancouver Way and close to some of the college’s buildings.
Bees aren’t the sole benefactors to the buffet of wildflowers, either. Butterflies and moths who are thirsty for nectar may land on flowers’ bulbs and clusters. Birds who feast on these insects may swoop in, too.
Plant growth in the first year won’t yield much food for the bees, Clark predicted, but they will come to nest in the exposed ground within the coming weeks. Mason and bumble bees will be the first to arrive, though other species will come after.
What will follow is a wonderful symbiotic relationship between the native flowers and pollinators. As bees feast on the plants, pollen will stick to their hairy bellies that they will inadvertently brush onto other blooms during their journey – a key step for flowering plants to reproduce.
“The built environment doesn’t need to be exclusive of nature,” Clark said. “Wildlife can and should live with us.”
So, what’s the big deal?
Seasons are always bustling with pollinator activity wherever forbs, trees and shrubs are present.
In early spring, purple-blue riverbank lupine or golden Oregon grape clusters attract long-tongued bees and butterflies. Later into the season, bumblebees will loudly bounce between towering Canada goldenrod and Douglas spiraea.
Yet the expansion of urban areas, which contribute to habitat loss and damage from pesticide use, is posing an ongoing threat to pollinators, said Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society executive director. Other drivers include the increasing prominence of non-native species, drought and disease.
Beloved European honeybees even present a challenge, as they’re a non-native bee that undermines the livelihood of native bees through their robust competition for resources.
“It’s a death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
Despite native pollinators’ importance, there wasn’t a drive to preserve them until the past two decades.
The Western bumble bee is a good example – it was threatened by habitat degradation, poisoning from insecticide use and competition from commercial bees. Biologists began observing a sharp decline in this once-abundant species along the Pacific Coast in the late 1990s.
On a grander scale, it’s important to note that the most delicious and nutritious food we eat is due to native pollinators’ presence, he said. It’s our fruits and vegetables. Even better, coffee and chocolate are improved by the work of bees.
About one out of three bites of the food humans eat depends on insect-pollinated plants, whether directly or indirectly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though this is a simplification, it’s accurate in illustrating the importance pollinators have in our ecosystem, Black said.
“We’d have a few other crops to eat (without them),” he said, listing grains and potatoes that would remain. “Boy, it would not be a very fun diet.”
Shifting urban dynamics
Instead of leaving pollinators to retreat into untouched evergreen forests and grasslands, there’s much that can be done in urban areas to attract them.
Cue the value of emerging bee campuses and cities through Bee City USA, a nationwide program spearheaded by the Xerces Society, which is a nonprofit group focused on the conservation of invertebrates.
Clark College, like all participating institutions, has a committee consisting of students and faculty who tend to the nesting areas. They may also host mulching parties, trivia nights and everything in between. Laura Rost, Bee City USA program coordinator, said after a year of involvement comes a series of other commitments, most of which are managerial, such as relaying pest management plans.
This component is important for creating healthy habitats for native bees, as there aren’t statewide initiatives to curb pesticide use in Washington and Oregon. Bee cities and campuses are required to minimize pesticide use, including eliminating neonicotinoid insecticides – a commonly used spray that is lethal to pollinators.
There are already established bee campuses in the region, including Lower Columbia College, Gonzaga University, University of Washington and Western Washington University, as well as Portland Community College and Portland State University, Rost said. Across the United States, there are 333 affiliates – 175 cities and 158 campuses.
Bee enthusiasts are quick to explain that anyone can help the ease the plight of native bees. All it takes is a buffet of native flowers — whether on a large plot of land with dozens of crops, or a city balcony with potted plants — and eliminating pesticide use.
There are also community groups, such as the Vancouver Bee Project, that can answer questions related to creating and sustaining delectable sites for native pollinators.
“That may just sound like so many issues,” Black said. “(But) we do have the solutions and studies to show that if we do the right things, populations can rebound. That’s what gives me hope.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.