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Pollinator-friendly habitat planned

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. --With Colony Collapse Disorder killing off 30 percent of the nation's honeybee population each year, while several native pollinator species are also in decline, longtime beekeeper and retired Cabell County Circuit Judge Dan O'Hanlon says it's time to implement what he calls "Plan Bee."

"There's a lack of food and habitat for these pollinators," O'Hanlon said during a conference in South Charleston on Tuesday. By planting bee-friendly plants along West Virginia's freeways and on reclaimed surface mines, he said, "we can form a pollinator corridor across Appalachia."

O'Hanlon was among beekeepers, scientists, government agency officials and mining industry representatives taking part in the West Virginia Workshop on Native Pollinators. The West Virginia Conservation Agency, the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project, the state Department of Agriculture and the National Association of State Conservation Agencies sponsored the event.

Despite their health issues, honeybees, brought to America during colonial times, and now used commercially in managed colonies, continue to do the bulk of pollination chores needed to produce billions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetables annually. But native pollinators like bumblebees, wasps, butterflies and moths are pitching in, too, and account for about 15 percent of the nation's food crop pollination -- at no cost to growers.

"Native pollinators won't replace managed bees," said Ernie Shea, coordinator of the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project, but they will continue to play an increasingly important agricultural role, he said.

The idea of creating habitat for bees and other pollinators on reclaimed surface mines should resonate with state coal operators, said West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney.

"We've dealt with habitat for wildlife and birds on our reclamation projects, but creating habitat for bees is something new," he said. "Having beekeepers use the land would not be intrusive. I think it's something we can get excited about. ... We just need to know the right things to plant."

Raney said a pilot bee habitat project is expected to get underway next spring at a surface mine near Marmet. "Once it's up and running, we can use it as a template to move forward at other sites," he said.

One special cost involved in preventing damage to beehives at mine sites in Southern West Virginia is the installation of solar-powered electric fence enclosures to discourage black bears from conducting honey raids.

  Scott Eplin, district manager of the state Department of Transportation's District 2 in Huntington, said a seven-acre wildflower area along Interstate 64 in Cabell County is being transformed into pollinator-friendly habitat with plantings of cornflowers, red clover and other plants favored by bees.

"At some of the oddball-shaped fields along the roads, we're looking at using brush and trees beneficial to pollinators, so we don't have to mow, which will cut down on our costs," Eplin said.

Ron Smith, the DOT's deputy highway engineer in charge of maintenance, said there are about 250 acres of wildflower plots along interstate highways in West Virginia, and more than 1,500 miles of right-of-way and median terrain along interstate highways and Appalachian Corridor highways in the state.

"We have lots of room to expand," he said. Using more highway corridor land for pollinator-friendly habitat "is very doable," Smith said. Bee-friendly vegetation could also be considered to serve as ground cover on new highway construction projects.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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