Of course, solar panels can’t produce honey directly, but some enterprising beekeepers in the U.S. state of Minnesota have discovered that solar farms can do the next best thing: create a habitat for the endangered bees who are indispensable in agriculture. It all started when the Minnesota legislature passed the Pollinator Friendly Solar Act, which established voluntary guidelines for turning the area around solar panels into sanctuaries for native grasses and wildflowers, which in turn became habitats for songbirds and other wildlife. The companies that implemented the guidelines obtained benefits beyond bragging rights for being eco-friendly. The fields proved cheaper to maintain than the traditional gravel or sod and had the added benefit of fighting erosion. They also improved water quality and reduced run-off as some of the grasses had root systems that went down six feet into the earth, creating a permeable surface that can effectively absorb ground water.
“If you build it, they will come,” to quote the movie Field of Dreams. In this case, they are Chiara and Travis Bolton of Bolton Bees, a husband and wife team of beekeepers who partnered with Connexus Energy, the largest customer-owned power company in Minnesota to install 15 apiaries in the fields the company had planted around their solar panels. The couple quickly established partnerships with two other regional solar companies and the results were tremendous. Not only did the projects raise awareness and encourage other companies to start fields for native plants but Bolton Bees harvested 4,000 pounds of honey. Chiara and Travis sell the honey in local grocery stores under the name “Solar Honey;” each jar provides information about where the honey was harvested to promote the idea of using solar farms as wildlife sanctuaries.
The story of Bolton Bees is more than one of a small business making a huge impact on the environment, although it’s both of those things. It also provides an example of a concrete step to halt the worldwide decline in bee population, which is a major threat to the food supply. Bees and other pollinating insects are critical to the health of the world’s ecosystems. A third the world’s food depends on their pollination. Their disappearance would devastate world food production. It’s possible to hand pollinate but it is labour-intensive, slow, and very expensive. In fact, it has been estimated that bees contribute €265 billion to the world economy on an annual basis. It turns out these insects probably are worth their weight in gold.
In the United Kingdom, the bee population has been steadily declining at an even faster rate than elsewhere in Europe. Many factors are to blame, including loss of habitat due to development, climate change, and pollution. In 2016, the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology released a study that attributed the population drop to the use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which can reduce bees’ sperm production rate by 40 percent.
Solar arrays take up a lot of space, so using the area around the panels as a wildlife refuge is a brilliant idea–and one that is not unknown here in the United Kingdom. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, larger solar facilities raise concerns about land degradation, as they require between 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt and it is not easy to share the land with traditional agriculture. Another solution is to be thoughtful about where to located solar power fields, using former mining land or existing transportation routes or other commercial areas. The state of Florida located a solar field next to existing wetlands, thereby protecting the area from development. With some creative thinking, we can save the bees.