Feature Image for Finding the Sweet Spot: How Solar Farms Become Bee Pollinator Gardens

Finding the Sweet Spot: How Solar Farms Become Bee Pollinator Gardens

September 20, 2016

It’s well established that solar power reduces dependence on fossil fuels, which, in turn, decreases carbon emissions and helps mitigate climate change. But solar power can deliver other, unexpected benefits to an ecosystem in crisis, on even the smallest scale. As the costs of solar drop and solar installations become popular choices in rural areas with available, affordable open land, innovative new legislation in Minnesota seeks to encourage the solar industry to plant prairie grasses and wildflowers beneath solar panels, to provide habitat for bees and other pollinators critical to the health of the Midwest’s agricultural land.

According to a 2016 pollinator assessment by the United Nations Environmental Programme, “more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species, particularly bees and butterflies, face extinction” worldwide. Minnesota — where millions of honeybees have fallen prey to pesticides, parasites, and habitat loss in recent years — has been particularly hard hit, with an estimated 30 percent of the bee population dying off annually. But where in other states solar installations might loom over arid fields of turf or gravel, in the Land of 10,000 Lakes a biodiverse array of shade-tolerate native plants and grasses will be seeded below the panels, thanks to HF 3353, which was signed into law by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on May 31, 2016.

Authored by Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, and backed by a bipartisan coalition that includes Audubon Minnesota, the Minnesota Farmers Union and local leaders in clean energy and business, the bill establishes voluntary standards by which a solar site can be designated a pollinator-friendly “Solar Sanctuary.” With more than 2,000 acres set to be developed as solar fields in the state this year alone, such plants will provide food and shelter for the bees that, in turn, pollinate the crops the state depends on for livestock and agriculture. A restored prairie landscape also improves the soil quality, fixing roots into the ground and helping funnel stormwater back into the aquifer — a boon to the surrounding land as well.

Bees may be small but they’re a mighty economic force. In addition to food crops, they contribute to crops that produce biofuels, fibers, medicines, and forage for animals. According to a recent White House report, crop pollination by honeybees alone contributes a value of $15 million to the agricultural economy.  Wild pollinators such as bumble bees and alfalfa leaf cutting bees contribute another $9 million annually. Now, in partnership with the solar industry, these tiny workers may once again find the strength in numbers needed to bring rural lands — and their economies — back into balance.

View All Blog Posts