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Power Lines May Make a New Kind of Buzz—As Home for Bees

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 14, 2005
 
If Kimberly Russell's vision pans out, the millions of acres of land
that lie under electric power lines across the United States will come to life
with the buzz of busy bees.

Russell studies insects and spiders at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Her research shows that bees take refuge under power lines when utility companies allow the land there to grow shrubs and flowers.

"When [areas under power lines] do that over a period of years, they get to the point where they have really nice scrubby habitat—a lot of short tress, shrubs, and little grassy areas—generally speaking, vegetation that … tends to be good for bees," she said.

For decades, however, utility companies have preferred to keep the land beneath their power lines trimmed to prevent vegetation from interfering with the delivery of electricity.

"In the past we'd come in every four to five years and mow it wall-to-wall, and we would just have very little discretion about what we were mowing," said Paul Sellers, senior arborist with Nstar, a utility company in Boston, Massachusetts.

Russell hopes to convince utilities to manage their power-line corridors, which crisscross the U.S. for thousands of miles, to allow for both uninterrupted delivery of electricity and healthy habitat for native bees.

Sellers Nstar has been developing a similar program over the past four years. Letting bee habitats grow, he added, makes sense not only for wildlife but also for the company's bottom line.

"Once we can maintain more healthy diversity of plant species in the right-of-way, it actually requires less maintenance on our part. To a degree it becomes self-sustaining," he said.

Refuge Study

Russell and her colleagues discovered the benefits of scrubby habitat for bees while doing research at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

A utility company there struck a deal to run two power lines through the property as long as it kept the impact to a minimum. The company allowed low-lying vegetation to grow under the lines.

Within a few years the power-line corridors were full of short trees and shrubs that tend to be excellent habitat for bees, Russell said.

To find out just how good the habitat was, she and her colleagues compared the variety and number of bees on the land under the power lines with bees in nearby grassy fields that were mowed regularly.

The researchers found that the total number of bees in the two habitats was about equal, but a much more diverse community of bees lived under the power lines, which is "what you look for in a healthy habitat," Russell said.

The areas under the power lines developed a variety of plants that flower at different times throughout the spring and summer, providing a consistent, evolving food source for the bees.

Conserving Bees

Why all the buzz about bees?

Bees are important pollinators, which plants need to reproduce.

Today many U.S. farmers rely on European honeybees to pollinate their crops. But diseases, mites, and pesticides have devastated these bee populations in recent decades.

As a result farmers are concerned their crops may not be pollinated.

In recent years scientists such as Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, have suggested that wild, native bees can take up the slack.

But the native bees need habitat when they're not lending their pollination services to crops.

Kremen's research shows that organic farms surrounded by native vegetation attract the most native bees.

Russell said that power lines, which slice through vast swaths of farmlands, could also serve as a bee refuge.

"[Utilities] have a PR problem," she said. "If they can put up a sign that says Wildlife Refuge, maybe people will dislike the lines less. There's an opportunity there we should follow up on."

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