The state Department of Transportation is shifting the mix in its roadside wildflower plantings, hoping to attract more bees and other pollinators while sustaining the beauty that motorists have found attractive for the past 30 years.
With a grant from Bayer CropScience and a partnership with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, DOT planted 58 acres of sunflowers across the state this spring and will have 28 acres of canola in the ground in western counties this fall.
“I’ve always enjoyed the wildflower program as I drive across North Carolina,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said Thursday at a state Board of Transportation meeting. “But it’s even better when I know we’re concentrating efforts on creating pollinator habitat.”
Farmers need honeybees, wild bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and birds for the pollination that turns flower to fruit and promotes consistent yields for vegetables, fruits, berries and other crops. Scientists and farmers have expressed concern about threats to honeybee colonies from hazards that include disease, mites, pesticides and climate change.
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Bayer CropScience, which produces seeds, pesticides and other crop products, opened its $2.4 million North American Bee Care Center in Raleigh’s Research Triangle Park in 2014. The company contributed $100,000 to the DOT pollinator habitat effort this year and pledged Thursday to provide $50,000 in 2016.
Entomologists at N.C. State University will study the program to gauge its agricultural benefits. DOT is seeking other donors to sponsor additional plantings.
The hybrid sunflowers produced their first big yellow blossoms early this summer, some of them in plots around the Triangle, and dropped seeds that will generate another bloom this fall.
The bees love it.
Don Lee, NCDOT roadside environmental engineer
“The bees love it,” said Don Lee, who oversees the flower plantings as DOT’s state roadside environmental engineer. “I’ve never seen so many bees.”
DOT has 800 acres planted in a mix of colorful native and non-native flowers, and up to 700 more acres available for expansion as pollinator habitat. After starting out this year with yellow sunflowers and yellow canola – annuals that would need to be replanted each year – the pollinator habitat program will shift its focus in 2016 to a multicolor palette of perennials that pollinators like.
“Coreopsis, goldenrod, beebalm – it would be things we don’t traditionally grow in the wildflower program,” Lee said. “We’re learning about this, but we wouldn’t claim to be experts.”
The plantings can nourish pollinators that will benefit crops several miles away.
“Honeybees will fly three to five miles,” said Dr. Becky Langer, the Bayer bee center director. “The bees will go out and find that food and communicate it back to the colonies.”
Troxler said the roadside plantings will make a difference in the years to come.
“We’re going to be able to prove that this works,” Troxler told transportation board members. “We can’t just stop at 2015, though. I’ve seen worldwide what’s happening with pollinators. Seventy of the 100 most popular crops depend on pollinators to grow. ... They’re the spark plugs of agriculture.”
DOT roadside pollinator seed mix
Eustis Lake Beardtongue
Sensitive Partridge Pea
Dwarf Indigo Bush
Eastern Showy Aster
Slender Bush Clover
Red Corn Poppy
Golden Wave Tickseed
Narrowleaf Mountain Mint