Bee habitat

Pollinator-friendly plants, like these growing under a Minnesota solar array owned by Enel Green Energy, are increasingly being used to restore bee habitats. (Fresh Energy)

MINNEAPOLIS — September is National Honey Month, and while there’s still concern over struggling bee populations, a Minnesota project has helped establish a new approach to make these pollinators thrive again.

Several groups, including Fresh Energy, have played a role in making Minnesota the first state to adopt a regional standard for pollinator-friendly habitats within solar farms.

Dustin Vanasse, CEO of Bare Honey, operates hives on a renewable energy site owned by Enel Green Power just north of the Twin Cities. It’s among 1,200 acres in the state that have a solar farm with bee friendly plants growing around the panels.

He said it makes better use of land that has replaced habitats for the insect.

“What most solar companies were doing was they were putting down turf grass or pea gravel underneath their solar arrays,” Vanasse said. “But now, what’s happening is becoming a quick industry standard is they’re planting pollinator-friendly habitat underneath the arrays.”

And, he said, the habitat can stick around for as long as the solar panels are in operation, which is usually around 25 years. A federally-funded study is underway to determine the effectiveness of this approach.

Right next to the solar property is Stone Creek Farm Orchard, run by Dan Shield. He said they produce peaches and plums organically, and having pollinator habitat across the fence on the Enel Green site helps grow fruit not typically seen in Minnesota fields.

He added because it’s a solar farm next door, and not a conventional farm, there’s an added layer of protection.

“The fact that there’s not a farmer using conventional herbicides and pesticides; it’s a little bit of a break for our farm in case a farmer would spray something and it would drift over,” Shield said.

The Bee Informed Partnership reported a nearly 30% decline in the managed honey bee population in the U.S. last summer. That’s the highest summer loss rate reported by the survey.

Supporters of the solar-bee projects say as solar prices continue to go down and more arrays are constructed, they can help restore the bee population while boosting renewable energy.

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