What do highway signs have to do with saving the bees? If you're in California, a lot.
Tax dollars at work, in amazing ways.
California is using its highway system to save lives.
Human lives, yes. But first ... bee lives.
Bees are in danger. Their population is rapidly declining. Why care? Well, without bees using their sweet feet to pollinate all those delicious plants we eat, those plants die. And humans depend on pollinators, like bees, for about one-third of our food. Plus, beekeepers in America lost over 40% of their colonies from 2015 to 2016 from 2015 to 2016, so the problem is pretty urgent.
You can do the math! It's sad, upsetting math.
But wait! Highways are about to come to the rescue.
Some of the folks who run California's transit systems want to turn the shoulders of highways into magical bee paradises.
Keith Robinson, whose main job is just to keep roadsides from eroding (if roadsides erode, then next up is roads), says this whole mission started with erosion. He and his team of landscape architects want to keep the over 250,000 acres of California highway roadside from eroding, which has become a major problem.
Their solution is a pilot program they hope will also save bee lives at the same time, which is a win-win.
They're improving the soil on the roadside.
"We want to make sure that [the] soil sustains native plants and creates favorable conditions that encourage pollinator plants to not only to grow but thrive," Robinson recently told folks at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Hearings in D.C. are often held to bring to light important but overlooked conversations that matter to Congress and to the people they represent.
The plan also maximizes the effect of compost in that soil — the better the compost, the more native plants will grow. And if those native plants outgrow non-native plants, fewer herbicides are needed ... which means there are fewer herbicides killing bees!
The team is even using the barely-used snowblowers (this is California, after all) to spread compost! I love it.
This initiative has politicians of all stripes ready to get on board.
Get a good look. These guys are at risk. Image via Flickr/HealthAliciousNess
Congressman Jeff Denham is a Republican who represents California's 10th district. He's also an almond farmer who needs bees and pollinators for his own livelihood, as well as those of his constituents. As he said at the D.C. hearing, "Making sure we have healthy pollinators is critical to a state like California.”
Could this team bee any more resourceful!?
I love that these folks are using existing infrastructure (their highways), all built in the '50s if not earlier, to solve a problem that didn't even exist when American tax dollars paid for it!
Robinson is determined to spread this plan to other states too. His team has developed a plant selection tool, TransPLANT, to help landscape architects choose sustainable, pollinator-friendly plants — because pollinator-friendly plants equal more bees and happy bees. They've also developed a roadside management toolbox to help other transportation departments learn from California's methods.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that these solutions will completely fix the problems of the quickly shrinking populations of bees in California. As Eric Silva, from the American Honey Producers Association, said at the committee hearing, “We’re losing half the bees over the course of the year."
But California isn't giving up.
I love it when we find solutions for big problems hidden in places we see everyday ... like highways. These are highways that America built when my mom was a baby. With programs like Caltrans', those same highways could serve my grandchildren by creating a more fruitful, bee-full earth. That kind of creativity is so exciting to see.