While we need pollinators to help germinate the things we like to eat, they actually don’t need us. Insects were doing just fine for thousands of years without humanity in their way - but now, with their numbers in decline, the search is on to find new ways of protecting them and their vital ecosystems.
Before we introduced commercial bees, cleared land for agriculture and cities, planted monoculture crops, sprayed the earth with pesticides, disrupted hydrologic patterns, and then took their honey anyway, those good guy bugs didn’t really need us. But we've always needed them - small as they are, bees and other insect pollinators such as butterflies, beetles and flies, are required to pollinate the majority (around 70 per cent) of the crops that we like to eat and that provide most of our nutrition.
In 2018, as hive losses continue in most parts of the world, bee and insect populations are in decline, including in Europe and North America. While we’re more educated on what’s happening to bees now, and are taking different steps to try and protect them - including largely banning certain harmful pesticides - helping pollinators and insects in general remains high up on the list of the world's priorities.
Now researchers believe they may have found another way of helping our tiny but incredibly crucial bug allies: solar power. Or, at least, the land that houses solar power plants. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been examining the potential benefits of establishing dedicated "pollinator-friendly solar power" habitats at solar power plant locations. After looking at nearly 3000 large-scale solar energy facilities in the US, the researchers published a paper this year in Environmental Science & Technology, setting out why they believe that the area around solar panels could be an ideal location for pollinator-friendly plants, and if managed more effectively would offer numerous benefits for pollinators - and for us.
How Can We Make Power Plants More Pollinator-Friendly?
Most solar locations currently gravel and turf grass to cover the earth below solar panels, but still require maintenance to cut down on weeds. Replacing that earth with speciality seed mixes may cost more up front but could reduce long term maintenance costs over time, including reducing mowing and herbicide applications. In addition, the right mix of low-growing flowering plants ensures that tall grasses and weeds aren’t casting shadows on the solar panels.
The study also noted that improved pollinator habitats may improve nearby crop yields, in a boost for farmers. The study noted even just a one percent increased yield could improve those crop values by millions of dollars, depending on the crop - meaning bringing together pollinator-friendly plants and solar-panels in symbiosis near agricultural sites would be a win-win-win for clean energy, agriculture and of course, all those pollinating insects.
In the United States, a number of organisations have been encouraging pollinator-friendly solar, including the Center for Pollinators in Energy, focused on providing information, standards, and best practices. The University of Vermont also provides a Solar Site Pollinator Habitat Scorecard, supplying planners with a checklist and a scorecard of considerations and guidelines. For example, guidelines on diversity of flowering plant species, natural or created pollinator nesting habitats within proximity to the area, and more.
If you aren’t a solar farm owner just this minute, there are many other ways to help bees. You can grab a packet of pollinator-friendly seeds and plant them to help provide food and shelter to the pollinators, or you can sign Greenpeace’s petition demanding the US ban bee-killing pesticides.