About 30,000 bees arriving on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion claimed all the apiary attention last week.
But behind the scenes, several other state agencies are working to improve forage for bees, including encouraging native plants to grow along freeways and distributing seed packets to help people grow bee-friendly plants.
Last month, the Legislature passed a measure to help replace noxious weeds, which include pollen-rich plants such as blackberries, with other, noninvasive species that can also nourish bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the measure into law a few weeks ago.
Why all the focus on bees? About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, with honey bees responsible for about 80 percent of that pollination.
Yet nationally, honey bee populations are in dying off at unusually high rates. Lack of available forage was a top problem identified by a recent honey bee work group convened by the state, along with parasites and pesticide use.
“Just think of all the different things that might be on your dinner plate that need pollinators,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, who sponsored the measure to try to improve honey bee habitat.
“That’s part of this conversation that we’re starting here — that realization that we really have to protect these little tiny flying insects and such, because they are such a vital piece to this broader puzzle of food supply, food safety and quality.”
WEEDS VS. BEES?
State officials and other public agencies are required to remove noxious weeds, which can take over ecosystems and harm other species. Often, however, those weeds are flowering plants that provide valuable food for bees and other pollinators.
Lately, state officials and beekeeper groups have been working together to try to ensure those weeds are replaced with something equally bee-friendly, said Alison Halpern, executive secretary of the state’s Noxious Weed Control Board.
House Bill 2478 requires the weed control board to start a pilot program to determine what mixtures of native and noninvasive plants are the best options for replacing noxious weeds, meaning they would provide similar levels of nectar or pollen. The goal of the four-year project would be to develop recommendations and guidelines to aid landowners in replacing their weeds with bee-friendly plants.
The law also requires state agencies tasked with removing weeds to replace them with native, pollinator-friendly forage plants when possible.
“We’re not saying, ‘don’t take out noxious weeds,’ ” said Franclyn Heinecke, the president of the Pierce County Beekeepers Association, which supported the legislation.
“We are just asking people to be a little more diplomatic ... If we do need to take it out, let’s start thinking about what we’re going to replace it with.”
Those efforts continue what many state agencies already have begun. Last year, the Noxious Weed Control Board distributed about 70,000 seed packets to landowners to help them grow bee-friendly mixtures of plants, Halpern said.
“We like literally handing people the tools,” she said. “If you feel helpless about declining bee populations, you can plant these flowers.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has stopped mowing many of its roadside areas that were being cut for cosmetic rather than safety reasons.
Last year, the Department reduced its nonsafety related mowing by about half, said Ray Willard, a landscape architect who manages WSDOT’s roadside program.
Willard said the goal of the reduced-mowing policy is to encourage the growth of natural wildflowers and bee-feeding plants. As the plants grow back in, the department will target noxious weeds for removal while leaving the native plants that benefit bees alone, he said.
“We’re trying to reset the baseline in these priority areas, and let nature do its work after that,” Willard said.
The new policy builds on the department’s longstanding work to plant native plants in areas that have been disrupted by construction, he said.
Over time, the policies being put in place will allow the department to get all of its weeds under control in the next 20 to 30 years — without requiring a big financial investment, and without clearing away all the plants that bees and pollinators need, Willard said.
“The long term goal is a naturally self-sustaining roadside,” he said.
Part of the goal of installing bee colonies on the governor’s lawn was to raise awareness of the problems facing bee populations, and encourage people to either keep bees in their yards or plant flowers that will attract them, said Trudi Inslee, Washington’s first lady.
Elsewhere on the Capitol Campus, however, work is underway that goes beyond the demonstration colonies.
Though state officials and beekeepers said pesticides aren’t a major bee killer in Washington, the Capitol grounds managers did move recently to stop using herbicides that kill dandelions, which are a prime bee food, said Brent Chapman, horticulturalist for the state Department of Enterprise Services.
“A lot of the time people aesthetically don’t like them, but they’re actually one of the first things bees go to in the spring as a food source,” Chapman said.
“Rather than killing the dandelions for aesthetic purposes, we’re not so focused on that, because they’re actually a food source for bees and other pollinators.”
Capitol groundskeepers also have been planting more native plants that attract pollinators — not just bees, but also butterflies, flies, hummingbirds and beetles, Chapman said.
In two areas of the Capitol Campus, Chapman’s department has been carrying out ecolawn pilot projects, testing landscapes made of slow-growing, drought-resistant grasses and meadow-like plants.
Part of the goal is to see whether anyone notices the aesthetic difference, Chapman said, since those kind of landscapes are better for the environment and for pollinators like bees.
Capitol groundskeepers will install even more bees at the Capitol later this month to help pollinate plants on the Capitol grounds, Chapman said. Groups of mason bees — which look much like flies and rarely sting — will be set up at eight spots on the east side of the Capitol.
Laurie Pyne, president of the Olympia Beekeepers Association, which installed the bee colonies at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday, said anything that can reduce public fear of bees helps with efforts to save them.
Often people mistake wasps and hornets, which can sting repeatedly and are more aggressive, for honey bees, which contributes to people’s reluctance to plant bee-friendly plants, Pyne said.
“Unfortunately, our honeybees get kind of a bum rap,” she said. “People say, ‘oh, I got stung by a bee’ and then they think, ‘Oh, it must be a honey bee.’ Most of the time, that’s not even the case.
“Those things that build nests in the gutters of your house are usually paper wasps. Learning the difference between the two and understanding the behavior of the two are really important.”