Thursday, January 9, 2020

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EPRI Equips Utilities to Enhance Pollinator Habitats

A Tool to Prioritize Locations for Bee Conservation

Drawing on a database of land cover, soil types, and information about 4,000 U.S. bee species, EPRI’s Wild Bee Habitat GIS Mapping Tool equips power companies to identify areas where they can have the greatest positive impact on wild bee pollination. “When EPRI asked us to test this new tool last year, we jumped at the opportunity,” said Lewis Payne at the New York Power Authority. “We intend to integrate it with our GIS system to identify areas on our rights-of-way where we can enhance pollinator habitats.”

When Lewis Payne began his career at the New York Power Authority (NYPA) in 2003, he was tasked with implementing the New York Public Service Commission requirement that the state’s electric utilities develop long-range, systemwide integrated vegetation management plans. Such plans drive various actions in transmission rights-of-way to promote species diversity and healthy ecosystems. Payne and his team manage vegetation on 25,000 acres along NYPA’s 1,400 miles of transmission lines, which transport 37% of the state’s bulk power.

As part of this work, Payne’s team wanted to create good habitat for pollinators. “We removed tall trees and tall woody shrubs to promote and manage lower growing vegetation,” said Payne. “This increased the biodiversity of the plant life, which in turn enhanced the habitat favorable to pollinators as well as to birds, mammals, and other fauna.”

Maintaining pollinator-friendly habitat in NYPA’s transmission line corridors has required sustained effort.

“To keep pollinators active in your habitat, you need a continuing source of food as well as nesting sites and water,” said Payne. “Recent science has shown that the density of tall shrubs should be around 35–40% of a right-of-way’s land area, and the shrubs should be intermingled with flowering species of forbs, perennials, ferns, and berry bushes that bloom in sequence through the growing season.”

Every four years, Payne’s team inventories right-of-way vegetation on foot. “In addition to the vegetation survey, we’ve recently added a bee survey,” Payne said. “Crews walk a transect, record which plants are in bloom, count the number of bees on these plants, and input the information in our GIS system.”

A new EPRI tool could enhance these efforts. Drawing on a database of land cover, soil types, and information about 4,000 U.S. bee species, the Wild Bee Habitat GIS Mapping Tool equips companies to identify areas where they can have the greatest positive impact on wild bee pollination.

“When EPRI asked us to test this new tool last year, we jumped at the opportunity,” said Payne. “We intend to integrate it with our GIS system to identify areas on our rights-of-way where we can enhance pollinator habitats.”

Application of EPRI’s Wild Bee Habitat GIS Mapping Tool to New York state.
EPRI’s Power-in-Pollinator Initiative

The Wild Bee Habitat GIS Mapping Tool is a hallmark of EPRI’s Power-in-Pollinators Initiative, a collaborative effort among more than 20 utilities to accelerate pollinator conservation. Utilities participate in workshops and webcasts, review the latest pollinator science, share lessons and experiences, identify priorities and projects, and have access to analytical tools.

“It’s the world’s largest collaboration of its kind,” said EPRI Senior Program Manager Jessica Fox. “It has the potential to create pollinator habitat corridors that are more extensive than what any one company could create on its own.”

Pollinators include bees, birds, butterflies, bats, and other insects. Most flowering plant species need pollinators to reproduce, and plants representing about a third of global crop production depend on pollinators. Around the world, pollinator populations are in steep decline as a result of habitat loss, pollution, pesticide use, disease, and climate change.

“Documented declines in wild and domesticated pollinators have led to concerns about the future of our food systems and the health of our natural resources,” said Fox.

In addition to transmission corridors, utilities manage many other land parcels such as solar power plants and substations, which, when combined, present significant pollinator conservation opportunities.

“Power companies recognize that they have a unique opportunity to contribute to pollinator conservation while meeting core operational goals,” said Fox. An EPRI survey of utilities found that 76% are engaged in at least one pollinator conservation project.

To keep pollinators active in your habitat, you need a continuing source of food as well as nesting sites and water. Recent science has shown that the density of tall shrubs should be around 35–40% of a right-of-way’s land area, and the shrubs should be intermingled with flowering species of forbs, perennials, ferns, and berry bushes that bloom in sequence through the growing season.

The Wild Bee Habitat GIS Mapping Tool draws on years of pollinator-related research and habitat modeling. Through interviews with wild bee habitat experts and a literature review, EPRI identified the state of knowledge on bee habitat mapping and data analysis for conservation planning. To guide the tool’s development, EPRI established a scientific advisory committee: Dr. Eric Lonsdorf (University of Minnesota), Dr. Claire Kremen (University of British Columbia), Dr. Jennifer Hopwood (Xerces Society), Jessica Fox (EPRI), and Kasey Allen (ICF).

Adapting part of the InVEST Model (an ecosystem services model developed by the Stanford National Capital Project), EPRI is building a new model more applicable to the operations and needs of electric power companies. Researchers compiled information from a national database of land cover and soil types, along with data on the location and abundance of those habitats that can be enhanced to support 4,000 wild bee species. Users can generate maps showing where wild bees are likely to be abundant and can benefit from more protection.

“The tool identifies where a company might want to allocate resources for the greatest impact on wild bee pollination,” said Fox. “It takes into account not only existing habitats, but also what is happening on adjacent parcels, such as housing, shopping centers, agriculture, and forests.”

The tool also considers habitat connectivity, a factor that has been challenging for conservationists to evaluate. Transmission corridors can provide pathways for wild bees to move between land parcels, helping them find food and water.

“In the future, we expect to research the feasibility of incorporating more local and state-level data into the national database to give us higher resolution and more accurate habitat mapping,” said Fox.

Tracking Conservation Results

Successful utility pollinator conservation requires the use of metrics for tracking progress. Metrics should be aligned with specific goals such as sustainability planning, public outreach, habitat quality, and bee abundance.

“Similar to corporate sustainability commitments, it is important for companies to consider not only goals for pollinator conservation, but also how to measure and track progress toward those goals,” said Fox.

EPRI’s Pollinator Metrics Database provides a first-of-its-kind reference for utilities to select appropriate metrics. It compiles metrics and maps them to various goals, drawing on results of peer-reviewed scientific literature and on resources from federal agencies, the Xerces Society, Wildlife Habitat Council, and other accredited sources.

“Pollinator abundance may be the wrong metric if your goal is to increase species diversity or to raise public awareness,” said Fox. “Utilities can filter the Pollinator Metrics Database for a specific goal (such as public communication) to select an appropriate metric (such as social media posts).”

Field Studies to Enhance Pollinator Habitats

Collaborating with utilities, EPRI is conducting longitudinal studies on pollinator abundance and diversity in sites in New York, Ohio, Alabama, and other states. Researchers are investigating the effectiveness of different plant species and seed mixes in attracting pollinators. They are tracking the benefits of vegetation management practices such as mowing, culling, and targeted herbicide application—which involves the use of “spot” spraying rather than aerial spraying. Goals include enhancing pollinator habitats and soil quality and reducing vegetation maintenance costs.

“We’ve tested different native seed mixes,” said EPRI Technical Lead Ashley Bennett. “In one study in Ohio with American Electric Power and the Dawes Arboretum, we reseeded previously forested and agricultural plots with native prairie plant seed mixes and are tracking their growth and flowering as well as the bee species they attract. We also looked at how well they held up against invasive plant species.”

Preliminary data from the Ohio study suggest that:

  • The native plants increased the abundance and diversity of pollinators, including native bees, birds, and butterflies.
  • Local pollinator populations shifted from being dominated by nonnative honeybees in the first year to native bumblebees in the second year.

“Utilities are excited about the benefits of using native plants,” said Bennett. “Standard practice after transmission line construction has been to apply turf grass seed mixes. Across the country, we’re finding that native plant mixes increase plant and pollinator diversity and require less mowing and maintenance. Because native plant communities have deep roots, they can slow water runoff and reduce erosion.”

At a 50-acre solar farm in Kentucky, EPRI is collaborating with LG&E and KU Energy to examine the effects of various seed mixes—including plants native to Kentucky—and the use of sheep grazing instead of mowing.

Bennett would like to study the unique role of transmission corridors in pollination. “I want to look at whether corridors facilitate the dispersal of pollinators across the landscape,” she said. “Do these corridors link otherwise isolated habitats together? Do they increase pollination services in adjacent agricultural fields? Answers to these questions have important implications for advancing large-scale pollinator conservation.”

A Short Documentary Film

Raising public awareness is instrumental in EPRI’s Power-in-Pollinators Initiative. In 2018, EPRI encouraged and facilitated utility participation in National Pollinator Week, an international event to educate and communicate about the importance of pollinators. Company activities included social media posts with pollinator stories and photos, public planting events, and displays at corporate headquarters. Companies reached nearly 700,000 people.

“This annual event is all about communications, outreach, education, and sharing experiences and research,” said Fox. “Only one utility in EPRI’s pollinator initiative had participated before. We introduced a huge swath of the electric power industry to the event, connecting utilities with significant pollinator resources, guidance, and support.”

EPRI is working with Tree Media to create a documentary film, Power for Pollinators, as part of an award-winning pollinator series, the first of which was narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Power for Pollinators will focus on the electric power industry’s unique opportunities to support pollinator conservation. It will explore the importance of pollinator conservation through:

  • Rare, close-up, slow motion footage of bees in their natural settings
  • Images of diverse bee species in North America
  • Insights from internationally recognized pollinator scientists
  • In-depth discussions about pollinator science and conservation

Fox and George DiCaprio are the executive producers. Release is anticipated in early 2020.

“Pollinators are critical to our well-being,” said Fox. “Our natural systems support us, and we need to support them. Power companies are actively considering how to incorporate pollinator conservation in their day-to-day operations, and EPRI’s experts are honored to support them with robust science and credible approaches.”

Pollinator Collapse: Numerous Causes, Diverse Impacts

The causes and effects of pollinator declines around the world are not uniform among species. The collapse in honeybees has diminished agricultural productivity and is partly a result of an “external mite, an internal mite, as well as the fact that honeybees carry around a lot of pathogens and pests,” said EPRI Technical Lead Ashley Bennett.

For native bees, the causes of declines include loss of habitat, pesticide use, and impacts of climate change on the flowering plants needed to provide a continuous food supply.

“The overall trend appears to be a decline,” said Bennett. “But when you drill down into the data, there are some ‘generalist’ species holding their own or increasing. These are species that can feed on weedy species or do well in urban landscapes.”

Key EPRI Technical Experts:

Jessica Fox, Ashley Bennett
For more information, contact techexpert@eprijournal.com.

Artwork by Ariel Davis


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