Since scientists and researchers first sounded the alarm about the rapid decline of the global honeybee population in 2006, it’s only gotten worse. Here in Winston-Salem, the Gateway Nature Preserve’s (GNP) pollinator garden and Samantha Foxx’s grassroots education campaign stand out as beacons for bees — and the rest of us.
Sheilah Lombardo, who’s a master gardener on the planning group of the GNP’s pollinator garden project, says the issue is going to take all of us to solve.
“It goes way beyond honeybees,” says Lombardo, who is also a volunteer with the North Carolina Extension Service. “There are hundreds of native bees, butterflies, moths, and flies that pollinate, and those populations are dropping, too.”
Honeybees, however, get all the attention. In July, ABC News cited a report from the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership showing a 37 percent decline in commercially managed honey bees between October 1, 2018, and April 1 last year. From April 2018 to April 2019, managed honeybee populations dropped by 40.7 percent, a rate that’s been alarmingly consistent since 2006.
These declines are part of a huge domino effect in global agriculture, and it’s not just about honey.
According to ABC News, several U.S. crops are produced with the help of 2.6 million colonies transported by 18-wheelers from place to place during peak flowering. Commercial honeybees are responsible for about half the $20 billion worth of U.S. crop production supported by pollinators. Wild bees and other pollinators handle the rest.
Samantha Foxx, who runs Mother’s Finest Urban Family Farms, has witnessed the honeybee exodus firsthand. She added beekeeping to her farming and business responsibilities about a year ago and currently maintains two hives. She plans to start a third later this year.
She says she got emotionally attached to the bees right away.
“You see right away that bees have such a strong sense of loyalty to one another,” says Foxx. “When you take out a frame from the hive, they lock legs and make a long chain because they don’t want to disconnect from one another. Seeing that really strikes a chord.”
Foxx also marvels at the level of organization within the hive. Each bee has a specific job it carries out to serve the queen. After a while, she says she can identify which bee is which simply by its task. When her bees began disappearing last year, she took the losses hard.
“I cried when I realized they’d left,” she says. “Sometimes bees will swarm when they don’t have enough room in the hive, but when they just leave it’s a mystery. You can’t explain why. A lot of other beekeepers have been experiencing the same thing, and it’s been happening more often. That’s when you know something larger is going on in the environment.”
There are a number of contributing factors, but the largest is industrial farming. Lombardo says the monarch butterfly — a pollinator native to North America unlike the honeybee, a European import — is a perfect example of big farming’s impact. The monarch, with its distinctive orange and black wings, lays its eggs only on plants in the milkweed family, wildflowers generally seen by farmers as a nuisance to be killed off with herbicides.
Milkweed produces a white, milky sap vital to monarch butterflies.
“When a monarch caterpillar begins feeding on the plant, it ingests that sap, which is toxic to monarch predators,” Lombardo explains. “So the milkweed plant helps defend and sustain the monarch. Without milkweed to rear caterpillars, we could lose monarch butterflies altogether.”
Vast swaths of milkweed have been destroyed across the state, country, and the world, a problem compounded by the way monarchs migrate.
“Monarchs need food and places to lay their eggs everywhere they go,” Lombardo says. “There are lots of examples like this in the natural world where plants and animals have co-evolved, and I don’t think we’ve discovered the half of it.”
Education is an important tactic to stem pollinator declines. Foxx understood this almost immediately and, soon after learning the beekeeping craft, began sharing her expertise at local farmers markets and schools.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important this issue is,” says Foxx. “I just wanted to do something about it, and along the way it’s been invigorating to see young people and more women become attracted to beekeeping when they see me doing it.”
Foxx’s hope is that the people who watch her demos and ask her about beekeeping at the farmers market pursue it themselves; planting milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants in their backyards, making the world a better place for pollinators in small increments. Foxx also offers beekeeping classes and equipment.
More than a garden
Another small step in the right direction is an increase in projects like the Gateway Nature Preserve’s pollinator garden. The garden, at the GNP’s Broad Street entrance, is the brainchild of GNP board chair Cornelia Barr. She came up with the idea on the heels of a $10,000 donation from Joshua and Julie Sutter of West Salem, with matching funds from Lincoln Financial Group.
Hurricane Florence flooded the initial garden site near Salem Creek. The planning group chose higher ground for its current plot, which started as a kudzu-choked patch of land near the Duke Energy substation on Broad Street. The group hired landscape architect Sprigg Parker to lay it all out.
“We used a $1,000 grant from the North Carolina Native Plant Society last fall to buy and plant very specific local plants,” says Andrew LaRowe, a GNP board member.
Now, instead of kudzu, the garden features neatly planted and mulched rows of native flowering saplings and shrubs conducive to pollinators. It also features insect hotels, structures with tiny nooks and crannies designed to provide shelter for insects. Insect hotels can be made in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit specific purposes or insects.
“Designing and building them has become an art form at this point,” LaRowe says. “There are lots of things you can stick together in a mosaic-like relationship. We have several groups wanting to put together a project to build more of these things for us.”
Meanwhile, the work of planting milkweed and other less hardy plants will continue into the fall to avoid exposing them too soon to the harsh summer sun. LaRowe says in about two years, the garden will be thick with vegetation and pollinators.
“We’re certainly going to be doing our part to help pollinator populations grow, but in a larger sense we’re an urban environmental education center,” he says. “With signage and real examples right in front of you, we can communicate to the community what the circumstances are and spread the message that it takes more than a garden.”