“Pollenteers” Build Pollinator Habitats



The city government of Asheville, North Carolina, is inviting the community to create important habitat.

A sunny fall afternoon finds the Wilma Dykeman Greenway in Asheville, North Carolina, abuzz with activity. Runners abound, roller skaters glide beneath the trees, and bicyclists cruise beside the French Broad River in a dedicated lane. What’s more, a literal buzz emerges from the bees that flit between the native plants of gardens and meadows along the path.

The bees are hard at work; a similar persistence went into making their riverside refuge a reality and is the result of a years-long collaboration between Asheville’s government and a local nonprofit, Asheville GreenWorks, who have been working together to plant pollinator habitat on city-owned land.

Soon, Asheville plans to welcome applications from city residents to establish and maintain pollinator habitat in currently vacant or underused public spaces like public parks or the lawns outside fire stations. Asheville GreenWorks will vet the applications in collaboration with the city government. 

This new strategy is a logical outgrowth of the city’s 2012 decision to become the country’s first Bee City USA affiliate, according to Phyllis Stiles, who founded the program to get civic leaders behind the conservation of native bees and other pollinators, and who currently serves as its director emerita. 

“With all the traffic from the public coming by, it’s a huge educational opportunity, and it inspires the whole community,” says Stiles of the public gardens initiative. “What we’re trying to get people to think is that every single inch of land can be pollinator habitat, as long as you don’t use pesticides and you have native plants.”

Since Asheville joined Bee City USA, the program has expanded to include 370 municipalities and college campuses across forty-six states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. Affiliates commit to actions like incorporating pollinator-conscious practices into their policies, hosting pollinator awareness events, and enhancing pollinator habitat.

But there’s still plenty of room for growth. Stiles emphasizes that grassroots activism is critical for getting local governments on board with pollinator protection. As a first step, she recommends that local advocates present the Bee City USA resolution to existing conservation organizations in their city or town — entities like garden clubs, tree commissions, and the local Sierra Club chapter. Those groups are likely to respond positively to the idea, Stiles explains, and can be enlisted to write letters of endorsement to elected leaders.

Once the language is before a city council, activists should be prepared to address misconceptions about pollinator protection. “Some cities are really worried that if they become a Bee City, they won’t be allowed to use pesticides if they have a pest outbreak,” says Stiles. “That’s not the case; what we’re really advocating for is that they make educated, ‘PC’ (pollinator-conscious, that is) decisions, that their staff are well-informed, and that they have guidelines in place before a pest problem comes along.”

Another common hurdle is the fear that pollinator habitat will become unsightly compared to conventional landscaping like mown grass. According to Kiera Bulan, Asheville’s sustainability program manager, residents can make it easier for a city to say yes to projects by sharing plans for continued support. It’s especially helpful if an established neighborhood association or civic club backs the work to guarantee its upkeep.

“It’s our intention that we use less lawnmowing and staff time to keep the weeds at bay,” Bulan explains. “Seeing an appropriately scoped site plan that matches how you’re hoping to maintain that property over time helps to instill a sense of confidence that this will be a well-maintained space.”

Cities often deal with multiple competing demands for the same public space, Bulan adds, from community gardens to pickleball courts. Pollinator advocates should work to understand those needs and collaborate across different city departments as they identify the best locations for new plantings.

Back along Asheville’s greenway, the gardens and meadows provide a perfect example of ongoing community engagement. Volunteers with Asheville GreenWorks — Stiles calls them “pollenteers” — water and weed the plantings, making sure they continue to serve as good habitats for pollinators.

“Being a beekeeper, I've witnessed firsthand the detrimental effects of habitat loss, pesticide use, and chemicals on pollinator health,” says one of those pollenteers, Terri Lechner. “I've also had the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of pollinator gardens. It's a true ‘build it, and they will come’ scenario, where we can make a positive impact on pollinator populations by creating the right habitats.”

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Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is a freelance reporter of science, sustainability, and political news based in Asheville. He was previously the news editor of Asheville’s Mountain Xpress, and his work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, Civil Eats, and Sierra. Contact him via LinkedIn, Twitter, or email at [email protected].
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