Minnesota, New York and South Carolina are among the U.S. states working to protect the country’s shrinking number of honey bees as the increasing use of solar panels reduces their habitats.

Ground-mounted photovoltaic solar panels now occupy about 350,000 acres of land in the U.S., and are projected to multiply in the years ahead as demand for renewable energy increases.  But the area under the panels is often stripped of vegetation and replaced with gravel to reduce maintenance, hurting local bee populations.

That loss of habitat is a growing crisis because about one-fourth of all agricultural production in the U.S. depends upon pollinators, predominantly bees. And billions of bees have been wiped out in recent years. State officials, recognizing this crisis, are encouraging the developers of solar power projects to maintain the environment under the panels in a way that sustains the bees.

“If this land is … cultivated with appropriate vegetation, pollinator habitat can be preserved or created,” Georgena Terry of the Clean Energy States Alliance said in a report this month. 

She pointed out that the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory lists several benefits for developers to have a natural habitat under the panels, including the need for less maintenance. Another benefit, the NREL said, is that the vegetation absorb heats, lowering the temperature of the surrounding panels and increasing panel efficiency — resulting in more electricity production.

Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont have enacted laws encouraging the development of pollinator-friendly solar facilities. Minnesota was the first state to enact pollinator-friendly solar legislation in 2013, and promotes the planting and management of wildlife habitat with a focus on the pollinator benefits on solar projects.

Utilities are taking the honey bee into consideration when planning new solar projects. Since 2018 Xcel Energy in Minnesota has required the disclosure of the type of vegetation to be planted at all proposed solar sites. Pollinator-friendly solar sites have been developed by Green Mountain Power in Vermont, Alliant Energy in Iowa, and Dairyland Power at locations in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Pollinator-friendly solar practices have evolved in the years since Minnesota introduced the first legislation in 2013. The costs, benefits, and positive environmental impact of pollinator-friendly solar will probably lead to the spread of the practices, according to CESA.

  • Scientists have pinpointed the use of pesticides as the primary factor in pushing honey bees toward extinction, according to a study published on Jan. 21 in Scientific Reports. In the past 20 years insecticides applied by U.S. farmers have become very toxic by bees.
  • The almond industry in California’s Central Valley, source of 80% of the world’s supply, is blamed for the loss of 50 billion bees in the winter of 2018-2019, according to The Guardian