‘If You Build It, They Will Come’: Saving Pollinator Habitat With Solar Power’s Help

By Madelyn Beck
This solar array in Minnesota has pollinator-friendly vegetation under and around the panels.

From bees to butterflies, a worldwide decline in pollinators has entomologists trying to figure out how to help those bugs and the plants that rely on them survive.

The answer could come from a mixture of new technology and new habitat, and the timing is critical, as the monarch butterfly is up for an endangered species listing later this year.

Illinois grows the majority of pumpkins in the U.S., a crop that relies heavily on pollinators. The state saw a decline of more 50 percent in beehives between 2017 and 2018, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration between the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Researchers at Argonne National Lab in Illinois and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado think that a rapidly growing energy sector may be a key opportunity. Not only could pollinator habitat mitigate possible solar-field damage, like soil erosion and the loss of plant species, but could actively help fortify the soil and environment.

Rob Davis with Minnesota-based nonprofit Fresh Energy, which advocates for things like renewable energy, said putting pollinator habitat under solar panels could also be a boon for rural areas. He said the combination gives landowners another form of steady income and helps pollinate crops around the area.

“It’s amazing what happens when you put your hands down in the soil and you appreciate it for something that’s not dirt,” said Davis, who directs the nonprofit’s Center for Pollinators in Energy.

Argonne did a theoretical study to show what a significant impact pollinator habitats in existing solar fields could mean for neighboring crop fields. Now they’re starting an on-the-ground trial run in Minnesota to see how that solar farm habitat could impact neighboring soybean (and potentially pumpkin) fields. Argonne ecologist Lee Walston said the research builds off of past studies that found, essentially: “if you build it, they will come.”

“(I)f you build pollinator habitat near an agricultural setting,” Walston said, “you’ll see an increase in pollinators and you’ll see an increase in the service, or the visitation, of those pollinators to those crop fields.”

Soybeans, another one of Illinois’ top crops, aren’t generally pollinator-dependent, but some studies conducted by universities and ag groups show increased pollinator visits can boost soy yields.

Illinois is experiencing a solar boom as developers apply for incentives under the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act. Counties across Illinois have been changing zoning laws, which can pit farmers against each other. Some say they want the steady revenue of renting land to a solar developer, while others want to keep cropland for crops, and they worry solar fields will lead to a decrease in neighboring land values. (There’s no concrete evidence that neighboring solar fields decrease land prices, but Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California is researching it.)

Pollinators’ plight

Without enough habitat, some pollinators may end up as part of  the Endangered Species Act.

Come June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on whether, or how, to list the monarch butterfly. If it’s named endangered or threatened, the classification would mark a major win for environmental groups that have been sounding the alarm for the iconic pollinator for years. Some estimates show the western monarch species declined as much as 86 percent  between 2017 and 2018 alone.

Georgia Parham, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency has collected information on the pollinator’s population, habitat, potential threats and population restoration efforts. But the monarch’s life cycle is challenging: There are two massive migration routes from southern Mexico to the northern U.S., spanning from coastline to coastline, and the butterfly needs habitat for a large chunk of that journey.

“The caterpillars, as most people know, live solely on milkweed,” Parham said. “So, making sure that there are supplies of milkweed for monarchs and other pollinators to use is important, and it’s all habitat.”

Parham couldn’t say what a listing would mean for farmers, or whether farmers would be forced to change the way they do things. But prior endangered species listings required the industry to change timelines and practices. Those changes could mean prohibitions on working in key habitats or using harmful insecticides during certain times of the year if they’re proven to have a significant impact on the monarch.

She pointed to Indiana bats, which are an endangered species in the Midwest.

“They have some fairly specific needs in the summertime when they raise their young. They roost in trees in big colonies,” Parham said. “And one of the mitigation factors that we might suggest for someone who wants to clear some wooded areas is just wait until October.”

For farmers, not being able to spray pesticides for a week or more could make a big difference in how well a given crop fares.

But Parham said that most everyone wants species like monarchs to survive, especially when it shares habitats with other key pollinators. In past listings, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have been able to find solutions that help the animal and won’t drive industries out of business — something she said will continue.

But any flexibility will really come down to how the butterfly might be listed and what is mostly contributing to the species’ population decline.

Plus, no matter what the classification is come June, the public will have a year to weigh in before that change is implemented.

Meanwhile, the amount of energy produced by solar installations is expected to grow 20 times larger in Illinois over the next few years, which could present an opportunity for pollinator fans and ag interests alike.

Follow Madelyn on Twitter: @MadelynBeck8