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Solar farms could make fertile habitats for bees and butterflies

Why limit pollinator gardens to backyards? Non-profit Fertile Energy encourages utility-scale developers to plant wildflowers underneath solar panels.

The buzz about the puzzling mass demise of honey bees, monarch butterflies and other crucial pollinators has prompted plenty of personal protection pledges. Now, a movement is afoot to plant these “gardens” at a much larger scale.

The campaign, advocated by Minnesota-based non-profit Fresh Energy, encourages developers of utility-scale solar projects to plant their land with wildflowers, native grasses and other beneficial vegetation rather than gravel or dirt. 

Its pitch: Using just one 2,500-acre solar field for this purpose is like planning 750,000 12-foot by 12-foot backyard pollinator gardens — such as the ones advocated by the Xerces Society.

Cost-wise there should be very little difference when you consider the costs associated with transporting gravel to solar sites around the United States, said Rob Davis, director of strategic communications for Fresh Energy. Another advantage: Investing in native habitat also may help developers manage water runoff. “We think it will pencil out the right way,” he said.

To tell its story, the organization ran an Indieogogo funding campaign last spring. For its video, Fresh Energy called upon two respected scientists: melittologist (bee expert) Marla Spivak and lepidopterist (butterfly specialist) Karen Oberhauser.

“For bees, habitat is everything, because it provides them with good nutrition. Monarchs need access to nectar, which comes from the same types of plants that bees need. And when bees and butterflies have good nutrition, that provides the substrate to help their immune systems. We know that habitat loss is the leading cause of the declines of almost every species,” the two note in the video.

The die-off of crucial pollinators such as honeybees and bumble bees has received plenty of mainstream media attention, including a cover story in New York magazine that declared, “Bees are literally worrying themselves to death.” The decline of monarch butterflies has been getting less attention, but the migrating population recorded for 2013 to 2014 was the lowest on record, according to government data.

The issue even has President Barack Obama’s attention. In June 2014, the White House issued a memorandum calling for a federal strategy to reverse these trends for all pollinators. (That includes all sorts of bees, butterflies, bats and birds.) It charged a task force to come up with more specific steps for research, habitat restoration and pesticide management. The strategy that emerged in May (PDF) aims to reduce bee colony losses to no more than 15 percent within the next decade (it was about 40 percent last year). It also seeks to restore or “enhance” 7 million acres of land for pollinators under public and private partnerships.

The task force notes:

People of all ages and communities across the country can play a role in responding to the President’s call to action. YOU can share some land with pollinators — bees, butterflies, other insects, birds, bats — by planting a pollinator garden or setting aside some natural habitat. YOU can think carefully before applying any pesticides and always follow the label instructions. YOU can find out more about the pollinator species that live near you.

Fresh Energy eventually raised enough money from the campaign to run an advertisement intended to increase exposure for its idea.

A garden grows in England

Fresh Energy is far from the first organization to advocate the notion of actually using solar farms or renewable energy generation sites for farm-like activity.

British renewable energy developer Ecotricity, for one, has experimented with ways to turn some of its land back to nature since 2004. That’s when it bought a woodland near one of its wind farms. In 2011, it expanded this idea, allowing land within the boundaries of its first solar farm to turn back into a wildflower meadow and habitat for insects and birds.

Another developer actively revitalizing habitats alongside solar installations is Solarcentury. It teams with Habitat Aid to plan wildlife sanctuaries for pollinators: During its latest fiscal year, it will cultivate at least 80,000 new plants sourced from local nurseries.

“When sensitively sited and appropriately managed, solar parks can present a fantastic opportunity for the establishment of habitats such as wildflower areas,” said Habitat Aid Director Nick Mann when the partnership was announced. “They can provide for an attractive refuge for a whole host of creatures. For example, solar panels provide dappled shady areas, similar to a woodland edge, one of our most species-rich habitats.”

A U.S. plan takes root

Why Minnesota? For one thing, neighboring North Dakota is the top honey producer in the United States, at least as of 2012. Minnesota ranks No. 5 on that same data set. Plus, it is home to several very powerful food companies, including Cargill and General Mills. “There are a lot of people here who really care about agriculture,” Davis said. 

Over the next two years, about 2,500 acres will be turned into solar farms. “Faced with that information, we started to hear that people were concerned these would be industrial sites. They question whether this is a good use of productive soil,” Davis said.

So far, the developers approached by Fresh Energy have been receptive to the idea, he said. 

Now, it’s a question of sowing the first seeds — and of reaching out to other states such as North Carolina and Massachusetts, where there’s also large-scale construction taking place. “We see this is a huge opportunity to get people to like solar a little more,” Davis said.

Learn more about the symbiotic relationship between pollinators and photovoltaics at the upcoming VERGE conference, Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, California.

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