Bee City USA

— By Sophia Noll —

“Making the world safer for pollinators one city at a time!”

Phyllis Stiles told me that she takes Margaret Mead’s quote very seriously… Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. “I believe that small groups of people can cause huge change,” says Phyllis and she certainly has lived up to that philosophy!

Jeff Pettis (former director of USDA Bee Lab) and Phyllis Stiles proudly displaying Asheville’s Bee City USA sign.

Jeff Pettis (former director of USDA Bee Lab) and Phyllis Stiles proudly displaying Asheville’s Bee City USA sign.

We recently sat down to talk about what is happening with bees and other pollinators and how Asheville becoming a Bee City USA is helping.

Phyllis Stiles: Back in 2006 the words “colony collapse” came out and it was big news. People who had never thought about bees started talking about them and North Carolina had the foresight to invite would-be beekeepers to go to Bee School. If they went to Bee School, North Carolina Cooperative Extension would set them up with their first hive. My husband went to Bee School in 2007 and we acquired two beehives in our back yard. For two years or so I would watch from a safe distance because I was terrified that I might get stung! Then one day he said, ‘You know Phyl, I would really love it if you would help me with this and it would be a fun thing for us to do together.’ So I said, ‘ok’ and I went to Bee School where I was totally and utterly seduced by the honeybees. They were fascinating!! One thing led to another and I started going to every possible talk about bees, whether it was the movies that came out — Queen of the Sun and Vanishing of the Bees — or conferences that the Center for Honey Bee Research hosted with nationally known scientists.

I went regularly to bee club where I would hear things like… the bees were in trouble and that they were declining and I got tired of hearing that. And since I’m not one to just stand back wringing my hands, I decided to approach the bee club at one of the monthly meetings. I commented that I was tired of hearing negative stuff about the bees and asked if they would like to do something positive to change and turn this thing around? I had some experience in the environmental world because I used to be the Campaign Director of Blue Ridge Forever, which is the coalition for all the land trusts of Western North Carolina. Some members of the Buncombe County Chapter of the NC State Beekeepers Association started meeting and discussing what would make sense for us to do, and from those discussions Bee City USA was birthed.

After looking at several program models for cities and communities we decided on the model from Tree City USA that had taken on the issue of the declining urban canopy. They had the whole system in place and hundreds of cities had signed up and agreed to do what was required—Asheville was one of them.

To be certified as a Bee City USA you have to have some kind of standing committee to act as a conduit so if citizens have a concern about the pollinators and they want to help they have a body to go to, to say this is something we care about and now do something about it. We adopted that right out of the Tree City USA playbook. We also did some different things, too, but Tree City USA was a great inspiration.

If a city wants to become a certified Bee City, a council must adopt a resolution and then reapply every year as well as submit a report of what they did for pollinators the previous year. They must install a sign so that people are aware that you have declared you care about the pollinators and want to help them. Certified Bee Cities must also commit to having at least one annual education event, which helps to raise more pollinator consciousness.

On June 26, 2012, Asheville’s City Council voted unanimously to become the inaugural Bee City USA, with both the honor and the responsibility the designation entails.

A decade ago not many people were thinking about pollinators and now, there are six certified Bee Cities in the United States. In 2014, Talent and Ashland, Oregon’s and Mathews and Carrboro, North Carolina’s city councils voted unanimously to adopt the Bee City USA resolution. Clarkson, Kentucky was certified in March 2015.

How has Bee City USA raised awareness?

Phyllis: Once they know their town is a certified Bee City USA, people in the community think differently about what they plant in their yards and they think twice before they spray insecticides. We have been contacted by homeowners, plant nurseries, businesses and restaurants… For example, a lady got in touch with me about insects flying in and out of her rock foundation. So I asked her to send me a picture. When I saw the picture I explained to her that they looked like Mason bees and that they would not hurt the foundation. I further explained that the bees probably came back each year to lay their eggs and they were wonderful pollinators. Mason bees are solitary bees and not likely to sting you because they aren’t defending a nest. I often refer individuals to the Internet to help them identify their bee and ask questions to help them determine what they are dealing with. Bee City USA galvanizes communities on behalf of pollinators.

Why Do Pollinators Need Our Help?

Phyllis: U.S. honeybee populations are declining at a stunning annual rate of 30% or more. While honey bees may be more appreciated for their pollination services because we enjoy the honey and wax they produce and they are transportable to orchards and fields, the thousands of native bee species—bumble, mining, mason, sweat, alkali, cuckoo, orchard, carder, leafcutter, carpenter, long-horned, squash, sunflower, digger, etc.—also have been declining at alarming rates, and in some cases, going extinct. They are battling most of the same enemies as honey bees—loss of habitat essential for food and shelter, inappropriate pesticide use, diseases, and parasites.

In the 90’s the pesticide companies lobbied hard to prevent municipalities from making their own rules about pesticide use. There are only seven states that allow cities to pass their own pesticide policies beyond their own city-owned land. North Carolina is not one of the seven but on city-owned property they can decide what they want to do. In Asheville their practice is to use herbicides for weed control and Neonicotinoids for the Wooly Adelgid on hemlock trees, but other than that they pretty much do not use pesticides.

Carrboro, North Carolina has had a least pesticide management policy since the late 90’s and they went as far as to try to find an alternative to herbicides. So they looked around the world for a solution and found a machine in New Zealand that could be mounted on the back of a truck to heat water to create steam. When the steam is applied to the weeds it kills them and that’s what they have been doing in Carrboro since 1999. That’s really impressive and it offers a great example that we can encourage other cities to look at. Cities across the country are banning the use of pesticides or adopting least toxic integrative pest management policies on their own property. In some cities like Takoma Park, Maryland they have even banned cosmetic lawn pesticides that are classified as “Carcinogenic to Humans” or “Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans” altogether in the city limits.

A Few Relevant Factoids:

• In the March/April issue of Sierra Club Magazine an article about honey bees and pesticide states that, “from 2000 to 2011, total U.S. honey production fell one-third from 221 million to 148 million pounds while the three most common neonicotinoid pesticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxan and clothianidin) grew from about 280,000 pounds to more than 4.5 million pounds. In frustration, some commercial beekeepers are no longer renting their hives out to farmers.”

• In June the president issued a Presidential Memorandum requiring that all federal agencies—there were about 18 of them—take measures to reverse the decline of pollinators through whatever means they have within their purview. All of them are in the process of developing their action plans by March 2015 and every state has been told that it needs to come up with its own pollinator protection plan, specifically in relation to pesticide threats.

• There is a study that has shown that if you take 10% of your agricultural land out of production and replant it with hedgerows, your yield will be the same, if not better, than before you took out the 10%. In massive monoculture fields pollinators have no place to go except for the one crop, but with these hedgerows, their diet is enriched with nectar and pollen that doesn’t have any pesticide on it. When you combine native pollinators with honeybees you get a much higher crop yield. The two of them working together (they are our smallest farmworkers) is like a one-two punch!!

• Honey bees add 15 billion dollars of value each year to American agriculture. Honeybees exhibit “floral constancy” so if you put honey bees in an almond grove they will start on a row of almonds and will not leave those almond flowers until they’ve visited them all. However, native bees aren’t like that… they will jump from species to species. Alternating rows in a field would allow more diversity in the diets of the pollinators.

• Did you know that there is an electric charge between the flowers and the bees? The bee has a positive charge and the flower has a negative charge and when the bee is drawn to the flower, pollen flies! The female part of the flower is the most grounded. It magnetically draws the bee and then pollen on the bee is drawn to the female part of the flower so it becomes fertilized. After that the flower’s charge reverses to signal the bees that come afterwards that it has been pollinated, it’s done, don’t waste your time on me. There’s this magical dance between plants and their pollinators.

Phyllis: Urban areas have their own challenges [as opposed to agricultural areas] in creating integrative biological solutions, but cities are in a unique position to create a safe haven for pollinators because of the quantity and dispersal of underused land-use types. Roadside strips, medians, surface parking lots, etc. all possess great potential to contribute positively toward natural ecosystems, but currently most hold very little ecological value. We have forgone diversity in the urban landscape for ease of permitting/maintenance, mass plant production techniques, and over-manicured aesthetics.” Written by Danielle Bilot in The Field: The Professional Landscape Architects’ Network. With that statement, Danielle eloquently explained why Bee City USA was launched!

We encourage city leaders across the nation to explore joining the Bee City USA movement by completing the application process. As cities and towns across America become attuned to the universe of creatures that make the planet bloom, we will become more conscientious about what we plant and how we maintain our green spaces. There is much we can teach one another—both city to city and species to species.

Tips for helping the pollinators:

1. Wherever you need lawn, consider growing clover to feed the bees.
2. Plant locally native plants, including some milkweed for the monarchs.
3. Invite pollinators to nest and overwinter by leaving small patches of undisturbed bare ground or brush piles. Make solitary bee nests out of bamboo tubes. (xerces.org/fact-sheets/)
4. Purchasing the Wild Bee Gardens app for $4.99 might be one of the best decisions you ever make. The app is formatted for IPhones and iPads to take along on your garden store trips.
5. Use natural pest management techniques, but if you feel you must use artificial pesticides, follow directions exactly and apply them in the evening when most pollinators (except moths) are not active.

There are several ways to become involved with Bee City USA. You can go to their website at www.beecityusa.org. There you will find information on how to volunteer as well as information on recommended planting guides for pollinators, identification aides, information on pesticides, how to identify a pollinator, and much more. Bee City USA is run solely by volunteers.

Their Pollination Celebration! week in Asheville starts on June 13 this year and you can go to the website for more information. Also the last Friday of March – June, the Asheville Alternative to Pesticides Coalition (which includes Bee City USA) is hosting a pesticide education series where speakers talk about pesticide alternatives, the history of pesticides, and effects of pesticides on pollinators and people. It’s held at the Lenoir-Rhyne University Center for Graduate Studies.

You can contact Bee City USA via email at beecityusa@gmail.com


Sophia Noll, a Professional Organizer and Organizer Coach lives in the Asheville area and has been organizing people’s lives for over ten years from Maine to Asheville. Sophia has a passion for nature and loves to capture it thru the lens of her camera. She also enjoys spending time with friends, interviewing people for WNC Woman, and gardening. She can be contacted at dpnoll@yahoo.com

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker