Bright idea: Kiernan pairs solar arrays and bees

MIDDLEBURY — Mike Kiernan has for years been concerned about the perplexing plunge in the number of pollinating creatures throughout the world.
Now the accomplished Porter Medical Center physician has made a commitment to “bee” part of the solution to a problem that is threatening the world’s ecosystems and food supply.
Mike Kiernan and wife, Tawnya, this past spring launched a new venture appropriately dubbed “bee the change,” through which they are identifying under-used pieces of property — most notably solar farm locations — for the planting of specific flowers, shrubs and trees that are particularly attractive to bees, hummingbirds and other key pollinators.
It’s a practical and altruistic gardening project with multiple winners. The solar farms get natural screening that also serves as a magnet for pollinators. Those pollinators make their rounds to surrounding crops, helping to boost the eventual harvest for area orchardists, berry growers and apiaries.
“The idea is to create a habitat for each of the species of pollinators to flourish,” Mike Kiernan said during a recent interview.
Honeybees and many other pollinators have seen their worldwide numbers decline in recent years due to loss of habitat, the use of pesticides and climate factors. Kiernan cited statistics indicating that 44 percent of the beehives in the United States didn’t make it through last winter. Consequently, an increasing number and variety of fruit and vegetable crops are not reaching their full potential.
“The big picture is much more important than the honeybees,” Kiernan said, noting there are more than 200,000 species of pollinators in the world, according to the USDA. But not all of those species are equally effective at doing the job. Kiernan said bumblebees are among the most effective pollinators, but they, too, are tragically on the decline. During the past few decades, the number of bumblebee species in Vermont has dropped from 17 to 10, according to Kiernan.
Older adults can harken back to the days when a car ride at dusk would result in a windshield full of tiny, winged casualties ranging from mosquitos to bees. That doesn’t happen much anymore, Kiernan said, and it’s an indicator of a serious environmental problem with serious consequences for growers.
He noted some of the challenges that almond growers are facing in California.
“If you grow almonds in California now, you can get a beautiful tree and blossoms, but no almonds, because of the decline in native pollinators,” Kiernan said. “Now they have to truck in bees.”
And bees are particularly susceptible to diseases and other threats, so the agriculture industry can’t be dependent on that one category of pollinator, according to Kiernan.
The dearth of effective pollinators is not only a problem in the U.S., Kiernan said. His “bee the change” business card features a photo of some men in China attempting to pollinate some apple trees by hand.
“This is something that’s hard to do,” Kiernan said of the attempt to pollinate by hand. “You need pollinators.”
That’s where Kiernan comes in.
It was during this past Memorial Day that Kiernan and a group of volunteers held a planting party at the four-acre solar farm property just behind the Residence at Otter Creek retirement community, near Middlebury Union Middle School. The group got some assistance from the property developer Middle Road Ventures and managing partner Charlie Kireker.
The group introduced close to 150 different kinds of plants at the site, Kiernan said.
The “bee the change” plantings include milkweed, blueberries, apple trees, pussy willow, elderberry, sunflowers, spice bush, American Linden trees and red maples. Together, they form an explosively colorful welcome mat for such potent pollinators as moths, beetles, butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.
Roughly four months later, the group’s efforts are bearing fruit — or rather, bugs. Kiernan conducted pollinator surveys of the Residences at Otter Creek solar site before and after the plantings. The survey calls for spending around 8 minutes walking a 200-foot corridor at the margin of the site, and then again at the center of the site, noting all the unique pollinators.
The pre-planting survey last year revealed 14 unique pollinator encounters — about the same number one might see on Church Street in Burlington, according to Kiernan.
A more recent survey of the site revealed 174 unique pollinators, some of which are commuters.
“This also has an impact beyond the (solar farm) fence line,” Kiernan said, stressing that honeybees have a travelling radius of three to five square miles. He believes a well-choreographed array of plantings will keep the pollinators coming back year after year. Most species of bees in Vermont make their home in the ground, noted Kiernan. It is for that reason that Kiernan keeps ground disruption at a minimum during planting and maintenance of the sites.
So a thoughtful, creative mixture of plantings — instead of conventional screening — has helped amp up the environmental benefit of the Middlebury solar farm.
“Since we’re going to put in solar anyway, and we’re putting grass under it we have to mow — which is not very carbon neutral — we can treat this like we’re creating a meadow, something that sustains without tilling or mowing,” Kiernan said. “If we did that strategically for the next 1,500 acres of solar fields that gets developed, that would be enough to pollinate the entire 9,623 square miles of the state of Vermont.
“Those 1,500 acres are going to get (solar) panels anyway, so it’s just a matter of adopting a different strategy that could make us the only state able to pollinate its apples,” he added.
Such an accomplishment would provide a big economic boost for the state, Kiernan said.
“I think the opportunity here is that if we create environments that nourish our native pollinators, we have the opportunity to have an apple industry — which is a $20 million annual industry in our state — that is capable of being pollinated by just our native (species),” Kiernan said. “That could make it a $200 million industry.”
At this point, Kiernan has no plans to quit is day job as an emergency department physician. But he sees tremendous promise for “bee the change,” and he is trying to make it a sustainable venture.
Kiernan has been paying for plantings from his own funds and through donations. Last week he launched a fundraising effort through the online crowdfunding site Indigo; bee the change hopes to raise $25,000 at http://tinyurl.com/zj6zv96.
Future clients, he believes, could include solar farm developers and utilities that are interested in adding an extra environmentally friendly dimension to their projects.
Kiernan is now targeting a second Addison County site on which to introduce pollinator plantings. It’s a large farm field currently controlled by Green Mountain Power (GMP) at the intersection of Jersey Street and Panton Road in Panton. Kristin Carlson, spokeswoman for GMP, said the utility is excited to work with “bee the change.” Should Kiernan’s plan be implemented and prove successful at the Panton field, GMP would explore additional collaborations at solar energy sites with which it is involved statewide, according to Carlson.
“Our take is that this is a wonderful, innovative idea,” Carlson said. “It’s a great way to leverage solar projects to bring more benefit to the environment and the communities, by attracting bees.”
Ross Conrad owns Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury. His beekeeping business produces honey, candles and other bee-related products, as well as nucleus bee colonies for sale each June, and bees for Vermont apple pollination in the spring. He is past president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association and was recently appointed as one of two beekeeper representatives on the Vermont State Pollinator Protection Committee.
“The loss of forage due to development and changing agricultural practices is one of the primary stresses honey bees and pollinators are struggling with, right along with pesticides, diseases, mites, and man-made climate disruption,” Conrad said. “Mike Kiernan’s work through ‘bee the change‘ is exactly the kind of effort that we need to be making if we are to have any hope of reversing the decline of pollinators in Vermont and around the rest of the country.”
More information about “bee the change” can be found at beethechangehoney.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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