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Efforts underway in WNC to save an endangered bee

Less than two months after the rusty patched bumble bee became the first to be placed on the federal Endangered Species List, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already working on recovery plans in Western North Carolina to protect the species. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Less than two months after the rusty patched bumble bee became the first to be placed on the federal Endangered Species List, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already working on recovery plans in Western North Carolina to protect the species.

The plan begins with looking for any still-existing populations of the rusty patched bumble bee in the region over the summer. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the last known record of the species was in the early 2000s in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The service will also be working with partners, like Phyllis Stiles, of Bee City USA, to create habitats for the rusty patched bumble bee and other pollinators that are at risk of becoming endangered.

According to Stiles, the U.N. reported last summer that 40 percent of all pollinators around the world are at risk of extinction.

"Without the pollinators, 90 percent of the plants, like trees, shrubs or any plant you can think of, would go extinct," Stiles said. "Seventy-five percent of the world's food crops rely on pollinators."

Stiles has been working with people like Pat Sommers, of Natural Selections in Weaverville, and said plants that are native to the area and grown at the nursery are vital for bees.

"People say you don't grow food, and I say I do. I grow food for insects and birds," Sommers said. "They've co-created together, they've evolved together."

The same philosophy is echoed at Glen Arden Elementary School's pollinator garden. Students in the third and fourth grades tend to many native plants they planted just outside in January. The project is a partnership with Asheville GreenWorks to teach students about natural habitats.

"It's important for them to learn about pollinators because this is where our food comes from. I believe it's one in three bites that rely on pollinators," said Christina Brown, an environmental educator with Asheville GreenWorks.

The same lesson about native plants is being taught to people with highly landscaped front and backyards by seasoned landscapers with The Natural Gardeners.

Husband-wife duo Annie and Jeff Menzer have slowly transformed gardens that have a lot of foreign plants into native gardens.

"For us, it's all about relationship," Annie Menzer said. "It's about our relationship with the plant, the relationship with what's going on around it and the animals that live on them."

Bryan Tompkins, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said residents should let areas of their yard become brushy and overgrown in order to provide places for pollinators to nest.

UNC Asheville has developed what's called The Bee Hotel because of a lack of that environment. The wooden structure is filled with stems, tin coffee cans and old books with various sized holes for bees to use.

"A lot of people like to have these really manicured looking gardens, where they prune back dead stems at the end of the year. But those are really valuable places for bees and other insects to spend the winter and lay their eggs," environmental specialist Jackie Hamstead explained.

Bees are most active in the late afternoon. As Hamstead and Stiles wait for the new bees to emerge, they said there's a lot that people can do to make sure other species don't follow the path of the rusty patched bumble bee.

"It all happens one person at a time," Stiles said. "One little small patch of land at a time, being really thoughtful about your pest management choices and your plant selection choices, and you can literally reverse the decline of pollinators and play a role in sustaining our planet."

Asheville GreenWorks will be hosting several events about pollinators throughout the mountains in June for Pollination Celebration Month. If you'd like to learn more, click here.

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