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As Bees Become Endangered For First Time In U.S., UNC-Asheville Gives Them A Place To 'Stay'

For the first time, bees in the United States have been placed on the endangered species list.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added to the list seven species of bee native to Hawaii

The next type of bee that could be listed as endangered is native to North Carolina and 11 other states.  It’s estimated the population of ‘rusty patched’ bumble bees has dropped over 90-percent in the past 20 years. 

The latest addition to the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville attempts to reverse this trend.  And it’s something gardeners of any skill level can replicate.

It looks like a giant book shelf.  It even has a few books on it, but small holes have been drilled into them.  The University of North Carolina-Asheville’s bee hotel isn’t trying to get pollinators to read though.  It wants them to live there.  Sonia Marcus, UNCA’s director of sustainability, describes what else is on the shelves other than those few books.

“We have some bamboo.  We have some mud blocks that (bees) use.  We have some dead plant stems.”

The materials in the bee hotel would be trash just about anywhere else.  Its hardened outer blocks were fashioned from debris taken from a campus building renovation.  All the plant material inside those blocks came from harvesting the many gardens at the school.  Marcus says it’s a lesson for any gardener throughout the fall.  Don’t throw out dead plants just to make things look tidy.  Those still have some use, even in death.

“That dead plant material is essential to the life cycle of native pollinators," according to Marcus.  "So when (bees) find those particular plants or something like mud that they need to reproduce, that’s just further supporting their healthy development.”       

Jenifer Rhode-Ward is a professor of biology at the school.  She says having materials with various diameters is necessary because bees come in all shapes and sizes.  And they all want a tight fit.

“A bee would crawl into these tubular structures, and it would bring with it materials from the environment.  Maybe some mud.  Maybe some leaves.  Maybe some dead grasses," says Rhode-Ward.  "And it would create an area that is walled off from the environment.  And that’s for thermoregulation.”

Rhode-Ward adds a tight fit also protects bees from predators, both natural and man-made.  Climate change has led to the collapse of bee colonies.  But it isn’t the only culprit.  There’s pesticides, especially those that contain neonicitinoids.  Rhode-Ward says those brands of pesticides are among the most used in the world.  Designed to kill mosquitoes and other flying pests, Rhode-Ward says they can…and do…much more than that.

“They remain in the environment.  So maybe the target species that you’re trying to get rid of…a disease-carrying species or something affects crops…that’s gone," states Rhode-Ward.  "But because it’s still in the environment, our native pollinators end up being exposed to it.  And repeated exposure can cause neurological damage.” 

So-called neonics have been banned by the European Union.  But in the U.S., there are no similar restrictions.  State governments are looking into the matter.  The Maryland General Assembly approved a partial ban on sales of the pesticides this year, the first state to do so.  Here in North Carolina, the state pesticide board earlier this year created a task force to study the effect neonics are having on pollinators and the aquatic ecosystem in the state.  But limiting use of those brands isn’t a cure-all.  In August, authorities in neighboring South Carolina started spraying to stop mosquitoes that were potential carriers of the Zika virus.  That spraying killed millions of honeybees on farms in Dorchester County.  The pesticide that was used did not contain a neonicitinoid.   

List of pesticides containing neonicitinoids from the Xerces Society