As morning clouds begin to dissipate and the sun begins to shine, raising the temperature to a warm 85 degrees, Lucy Hudson stands next to the pollinator habitat that covers a corner of Miller Center, the headquarters of Lynchburg’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Hudson, a park services specialist for the department, gazes at the wide array of flowers and herbs like a proud mother. The area around her is buzzing with activity, as sweat bees and bumblebees float from blossom to blossom and plant to plant. The colors range from pink and purple to red and yellow. She points out the African blue basil and the coneflowers as both enjoyed by bees and a great source of food.
After taking a class on bees, Hudson decided that it was important in her work to ensure that Lynchburg would become more bee- and pollinator-friendly. It has been a labor of love as she has spent the last several years planting and digging in the various pollinator habitats around the city, including many located at community centers and parks such as Riverside Park.
The habitats are eye-catching additions to their surroundings. But they were created for a specific purpose: to address the fact that the plight of bees and other pollinators has gone downhill and their future is uncertain.
Over the last few years the United States, as well as the rest of the world, has seen a decline in the number of pollinators. The most commonly known pollinators are bees and butterflies, but birds, bats and other foraging animals are also pollinators.
According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey-led study, the once common western bumblebee has declined by 57%. Much of the general decline can be attributed to an increase in temperatures, the use of pesticides and overall human activity.
Humans depend heavily on the activity of pollinators for survival yet are a large contributor to their decline. An ever-expanding population in the U.S. is constantly widening the spaces where humans live, removing native grasses and flowers that pollinators depend on.
Federal agencies including USGS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been warning for years of the danger that further decline of pollinators poses to both the economy and the survival of humans and wildlife as a whole.
In Virginia, a number of colleges, universities and municipalities have taken steps to try and help pollinators continue to play their part in the ecosystem. Randolph College in Lynchburg was the first university in the state to be certified “bee-friendly” in 2016 by Bee City USA, an initiative of the Xerces Society, an organization focused on the preservation of invertebrates and their habitats.
To date, there are 191 cities across the United States that can boast of being a Bee City; 13 of those are in Virginia. In addition, there are 173 college and university campuses that can lay claim to being a Bee Campus, with six of them in Virginia.
Randolph College maintains several, rain, organic and pollinator habitats around campus and the community, says Lindsey Van Zile, the school’s sustainability and campus projects. The school also has areas where grasses aren’t mowed so that they attract pollinators, touching only those areas necessary to harvest seeds for future growth. The school also maintains a greenhouse for seeding flowers and plants that are then planted in the pollinator habitats.
An important key to the effort’s success is the education of the public. Van Zile says that the college provides information to both the public and students about the role that pollinators play in the ecosystem. Students have shown great interest in getting involved, she says, and tend both the habitats and the greenhouse.
Since she started her position at Randolph College at the end of October 2022, Van Zile has seen an increase in the instances of pollinators around campus and in Lynchburg. She says that she has seen the greatest increase in the unmowed areas where the blooms in those grasses have attracted more bee visits.
Lynchburg became a Bee City in 2019. The city was already taking steps to become more pollinator-friendly when it was approached by the Xerces Society, Hudson says.
Many of Lynchburg’s efforts have been in tandem with those of Randolph College. All across the city, pollinator habitats have been planted with native flowers and herbs that provide shelter and food. Hudson says that the Department of Parks and Recreation also has encouraged the city to be cognizant of the types of pesticides that it uses, and how much or how often it sprays them in the gardens.
Also, like Randolph, Lynchburg has designated certain areas within Riverside Park as no-mow zones. This both allows for the attraction of pollinators and reduces some of the gasoline fumes being released into the air.
Education also has been a key element in Lynchburg’s sustainability efforts. Hudson says that the city placed signs within the un-mowed areas, explaining that they’re being allowed to grow so that they can attract bees and other pollinators. The city also has engaged in efforts to educate the public on how to plant beneficial plants, flowers and trees and how to maintain their own gardens at home.
Hudson says she has been working for years on her own garden to make it more pollinator-friendly. She says that bees native to Virginia are solitary, meaning they don’t have a hive structure, and the young depend on their mother to find and provide food. If she is unable to do so, both mother and the babies will die. This point emphasizes the importance of maintaining pollinator habitats and un-mowed grasses so that our pollinators can feed themselves and thrive, thus also benefiting humans in the long run.
In the fall of 2020, the city of Martinsville became a Bee City. Cindy Edgerton, chairperson of the city’s Bee City Committee — and also a member of several local garden clubs — says that she approached the city council to propose that the city become a Bee City. Given her involvement with garden clubs, she had been thinking for some time about how to protect pollinators.
To her delight, the city council agreed to apply, but with one caveat: The city did not want to spend any money.
While this presented a challenge, the community dove in head first. Edgerton says that the committee relies heavily on education, from setting up booths at public events — she says that a bee costume is in the works to add a bit of flair — to providing practical advice to residents as to how they can help protect pollinators. She says that she tells people that they can mow their lawns, but the grass should not be cut below 4 inches. She also recommends that herbicides be used instead of pesticides in personal gardens and on lawns.
The city also has several baseball fields that have fallen into disuse. A plethora of clover has overgrown the fields, and the city has decided to allow that to grow so that it can be a source of food for pollinators, Edgerton says.
Edgerton adds that the community is truly excited to be involved. Schools, museums and even the chamber of commerce have been heavily invested in the educational aspect of the efforts.
Virginia Tech was designated a Bee Campus last year.
The university has planted and maintains habitat gardens around the campus, says Margaret Couvillon, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology who focuses on pollinator biology and ecology. While Tech began by planting flowers such as lavender, it has since diversified its array of pollinator-attracting perennial flowers, plants and trees.
Couvillon and her team have also worked with the campus grounds crew to reduce the pesticides used in and around their gardens. While spraying may kill the insects that damage flowers and plants, it also can kill bees and other pollinators.
These efforts are a long-term project, she says. Tech is developing a method to measure the increase in pollinators as a result of the school’s efforts. Though it has only been a year since Virginia Tech was certified as a Bee Campus, there have been intangible results, Couvillon says.
“This has brought together Hokies around a common cause,” she says.
In May 2022, the Roanoke City Council adopted a resolution declaring Roanoke a Bee City. The Roanoke Valley Garden Club and others had been advocating for the city to become a pollinator-friendly community for many years, and in May 2023, the city officially launched its project.
“It’s important to protect and sustain pollinator habitats,” says Leigh Anne Weitzenfeld, the city’s sustainability coordinator.
The city is in the process of forming its Bee City committee, which will include city employees and members of area garden clubs.
One of the committee’s main goals will be to educate the public on the role that pollinators play in sustainability. The city also has put out a brochure explaining which native plants, flowers and trees should be planted in home gardens to attract pollinators.
In partnership with local garden clubs, the city has planted pollinator habitats in various locations across Roanoke. One garden club recently received a grant that will help pay for signage in those gardens and other areas where sustainability efforts are underway.
Weitzenfeld also says that Roanoke is creating an integrated pesticide management plan — also a requirement of the Xerces Society to be certified as a Bee City — to rein in the use of chemicals that are detrimental to the pollinator population.
In Washington Park, the city has created a riparian buffer that will provide beneficial vegetation and access to a water source for pollinators. In Vic Thomas Park, the city has created a natural meadow. A team led by Laura Riley, the city’s landscape management coordinator, has removed invasive species there and is in the process of planting native flowers that they hope will attract more pollinators.
Virginia Western Community College
Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke is one of the latest colleges to become a Bee Campus. Heather Butler, an assistant professor of biology, says that the school applied with the Xerces Society in June and on July 14 was certified as a Bee Campus.
This was a logical next step, as Virginia Western had already been doing many of the things required to become certified. The Bee Campus Committee is composed of faculty, staff (including the campus police) and students, demonstrating a campus-wide commitment to the cause. Butler says that it really is a community effort and everyone is enthusiastic and looking for ways to get involved. The school also maintains a website in an ongoing effort to educate the public on the importance of protecting pollinator habitats.
Across the campus, many native trees, flowers and plants dot the landscape. This is no more evident than in the school-maintained arboretum, just off Colonial Avenue. While the arboretum features a variety of species, it has a plot specially dedicated to native plants. Butler says that the school hopes to expand and add more plots of native plants, important to pollinators.
Butler also says that Virginia Western has remained committed to taking care of the plants and trees around campus in a responsible way. The school has used only organic pesticides to fight off destructive insects that threaten the native plants and trees.
Although honey bees are not native to North America, Virginia Western’s horticulture department has established beehives behind the tennis courts, in conjunction with Chet Bhatta, an entomologist at Radford University. Both faculty and students contribute to the upkeep of the hives, Butler says, And the college wants to add native plants around the hives to aid the bees occupying them.
“We’re really excited to get this off the ground,” she says.
The city of Salem earlier this year received a grant of $1,000 from Keep Virginia Beautiful that it plans to use to convert some of the turf grass in Longwood Park into a native working prairie, according to Jeff Ceaser, the city’s horticulturist.
“Becoming a Bee City is certainly a possibility, but the problem is that this is a long-term project,” says Ceaser.
However, Salem had been working on projects both to beautify and preserve the natural surroundings, long before receiving the grant.
Ceaser says that his crews recently removed rotted trees to incorporate trees that bear fruit such as pears. These are beneficial to pollinators because they provide a source of food. The city has also experimented with test plots to see if native grasses will grow in certain places.
In other areas, the city is letting the grass grow. Ceaser says that the city has received calls about why certain areas aren’t being mowed; like Lynchburg, Salem has placed signs in those areas to educate the public about why the grass is being allowed to grow.
As in other cities, pesticide use has been a concern for Salem. Ceaser says that the city has focused not only on what it is spraying, but also how much is being sprayed.
To learn more about making a garden more pollinator-friendly and sustainable, visit www.xerces.org