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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pollinating Insect Experiment

Air Date: Week of

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: In summer, the sound of tee shots is a constant rhythm heard out on the nation's golf courses. 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)

FITZPATRICK: Golf courses are among the most manicured landscapes on Earth, requiring endless attention by the grounds crew.


FITZPATRICK: However, workers at the Wildhorse Resort near Pendleton, Oregon, are trying to create a little chaos amidst the lush fairways.

(Metal scrapes on rock)

FITZPATRICK: 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.

(Shovel delving)

FITZPATRICK: 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)

FITZPATRICK: Ms. Davis is installing a diverse assortment of plants, such as yarrow, choke cherries, sumac, wild grape, and woodsy rose.

(Shovel sounds, pats)

FITZPATRICK: 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 we can come and water.

FITZPATRICK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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 Wild Horse 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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 say pollinators, not bees. When you say 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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)

FITZPATRICK: Honeybees live in huge colonies, with thousands of individual insects. (Buzzing continues)

FITZPATRICK: Actually, though, honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought here by pilgrims centuries ago.

(Buzzing continues)

FITZPATRICK: 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.

(Opening boxes)

TEPEDINO: We have 51 species of bees and 32 species of wasps.

FITZPATRICK: 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 Wild Horse 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.

(Creaking Styrofoam)

FITZPATRICK: The specimens are pinned to a styrofoam panel. 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.

FITZPATRICK: (Laughs) You're not a fly fisher, are you?

TEPEDINO: No, I'm not.

(Wooden boards being hammered)

TEPEDINO: Want to come help? (A woman speaks in reply.)

FITZPATRICK: Out on the golf course, Dr. Tepedino is helping the experiment by erecting nesting blocks for native pollinators to call home.

(A drill runs)

FITZPATRICK: Atop a 3-foot stake, he attaches several boards with small holes where females can lay eggs.

(More hammering)

FITZPATRICK: Like a bird house, bees will come to a bee house?

TEPEDINO: Oh yeah. Yeah. These are bee condos.

(More drilling)

FITZPATRICK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: It will also take time to assess if golfers will accept an audience of insects.

(Another ball is hit)

FITZPATRICK: 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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