Air Date: Week of July 3, 1998
A golf course in Oregon has launched a unique project to install native flowering plants to help stem the decline of the wild insects that pollinate them. If successful, it could become a nationwide model for restoring the habitat of some of nature's most important creatures. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports from Pendleton, Oregon.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Sound of a golf club striking a ball)
CURWOOD: As we settle into summer, the sound of tee shots is a constant rhythm heard out on the nation's golfcourses. But if a group of ecologists is successful, this course in Oregon could also be buzzing with the sound of--bees! The Wildhorse Resort has launched a unique project to install native flowering plants to help stem the decline of the wild insects that pollinate them. If successful, it could become a nationwide model for restoring the habitat of some of Nature's most important creatures. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.
(Another golfball heads for the fairway)
FITZ PATRICK: Golf courses are among the most manicured landscapes on Earth, requiring endless attention by the grounds crew.
FITZ PATRICK: However, workers at the Wildhorse Resort near Pendleton, Oregon, are trying to create a little chaos amidst the lush fairways.
(Metal scrapes on rock)
FITZ PATRICK: With picks and shovels, they're transforming out- of-bounds sections into a jungle of native flowering plants, the kinds that bees and other pollinating insects depend on.
(Scrapes, thuds, taps, pats)
DAVIS: If you look to your left and right, most of this is farmed. And there's very few native plant communities left, and so the insects don't really have a place to be.
FITZ PATRICK: Landscaper June Davis says wildflowers were common before farmers and urban developers plowed them under. This pilot project will determine if native bee populations can recover when the natural plants are restored.
(Scrape, rattle, brushing off of hands. Woman's voice: "All right, here you go, baby!" Then pat, pat.)
FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Davis is installing a diverse assortment of plants, such as yarrow, choke cherries, sumac, wild grape, and woodsy rose.
(Shovel sounds, pats)
FITZ PATRICK: Each one attracts a different type of bee
(Energetic soil firming sounds. Woman's voice: "...get that packed down..."
DAVIS: There, we have a nice little basin, that after we can come and water.
FITZ PATRICK: There are more than 4,000 species of bee in North America, and while there are no firm statistics on their decline, many ecologists sense there has been an alarming drop. Melody Allen, of the Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation, blames the lack of native vegetation, such as the vast expanses of grass, on golf course like this.
ALLEN: Without the plants, the insects die. Then, without the insects, the remaining plants don't regenerate. And then you have fewer and fewer insects. So it's a vicious downward spiral.
FITZ PATRICK: Unchecked, this spiral could threaten the pollination of thousands of species of plants, even plants that people depend upon for food. The domesticated honeybee hives that farmers rely on, have been devastated in recent years by parasites, and scientists think native bees might offer a solution. Ms. Allen and other back yard gardeners have noticed that on a small scale, planting wildflowers helps wild bees to rebound.
ALLEN: I went from a back yard that had grass to a back yard that is filled with native plants, and this is in urban Portland. And it is absolutely alive with insects. I mean you walk into my yard, it's just amazing. They are so busy and they're so productive and they're so beneficial. And it's a pleasant sound; it's equivalent to the sound of bird song in the morning, to go out in the afternoon, on a sunny afternoon, and hear. It's like a music of insects. It's just beautiful.
FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Allen believes her back yard experiment can work on golf courses nationwide, where there are millions of acres of land that is out of play. The Wildhorse course was picked to go first, in part because the Indian tribes that built it have a special nursery to reintroduce native plants. Monica Sanchee is the nursery manager for the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes.
SANCHEE: We're trying to complete a cycle. It's a circle. We're trying to put back into the circle all living things that create a whole. This is what makes the land work for itself.
FITZ PATRICK: Still, some tribal members weren't sure they could embrace the return of bees and wasps on their new golf course resort. But superintendent Sean Hoolehan says people came around when they learned the project does not involve the swarming, stinging honeybees that people are familiar with.
HOOLEHAN: The key is to save pollinators, not bees. When you save bees, people's eyes rise and -- for instance, on my staff I have some people who are allergic to bees. But when we talk about it and tell them, explain to them what really we're talking about, about a more solitary kind of species and their importance, everybody kind of buys off. I haven't had any negative comments.
FITZ PATRICK: In fact, many people wouldn't recognize a wild bee even if it did come up and try to sting them. They're nothing like the honeybees people commonly think about.
(Many buzzing bees)
FITZ PATRICK: Honeybees live in huge colonies, with thousands of individual insects.
FITZ PATRICK: Actually, though, honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought here by Pilgrims centuries ago.
FITZ PATRICK: Most naturally-occurring bees in the US do not live in hives. They live alone. They're far less likely to sting, and their venom is weaker.
(sound of boxes being opened)
TEPEDINO: We have 51 species of bees and 32 species of wasps.
FITZ PATRICK: In a lab at Whitman College in nearby Walla Walla, Washington, Vince Tepedino is opening boxes with specimens of native pollinators. Dr. Tepedino is with the US Department of Agriculture's bee research center in Utah. He tells students who will monitor the Wildhorse golf course that pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, and colors.
TEPEDINO: Blues, bright greens, some purplish reds. Some of them are amazingly beautiful. They're like jewels.
FITZ PATRICK: The specimens are pinned to a styrofoam panel.
(To Tepedino)These are absolutely amazing.
But even with a magnifying glass, I couldn't recognize them as bees.
(To Tepedino) They look more like big flies, or dragonflies.
TEPEDINO: They're far too beautiful for flies.
FITZ PATRICK: (Laughs) You're not a fly fisher, are you?
TEPEDINO: No, I'm not.
(Wooden boards being hammered)
TEPEDINO: Want to come hold? (A woman speaks in reply.)
FITZ PATRICK: Out on the golf course, Dr. Tepedino is helping the experiment by erecting nesting blocks for native pollinators to call home.
(A drill runs)
FITZ PATRICK: Atop a 3-foot stake, he attaches several boards with small holes where females can lay eggs.
FITZ PATRICK: Like a bird house, bees will come to a bee house?
TEPEDINO: Oh yeah. Yeah. These are bee condos.
FITZ PATRICK: In a natural setting, fallen logs would provide nesting habitat like this. But for now, Dr. Tepedino says the blocks will do.
(To Tepedino) So it seems your strategy right now is sort of the field of dreams strategy?
TEPEDINO: (Laughs) Yeah, that's exactly right. Build it and they will come.
FITZ PATRICK: It will take all year to learn if the bees do come in sufficient numbers to make this effort worthwhile.
(A golf ball is hit)
MAN: That's a good ball.
FITZ PATRICK: It will also take time to assess if golfers will accept an audience of insects.
(Another ball is hit)
FITZ PATRICK: But if the project is a success, native plant restoration could expand to public parks, corporate campuses, and highway medians, providing a mosaic of habitat where people and pollinators can coexist. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon.
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