Scott McArt, assistant professor of entomology, checks on honeycombs at Cornell's Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies in Ithaca.

Partnership to assess pollinator-friendly solar farms

A pollinator-friendly wildflower grows near a Cypress Creek solar array.

Solar farms are known to offer a ready source of green energy. But could they also offer ecological and economic benefits as pollinator-friendly habitats?

Scott McArt, assistant professor of entomology, is partnering with Cypress Creek Renewables, a leading national solar developer, on a groundbreaking study to determine the local benefits of wildflower plantings on solar sites in central New York and the Hudson Valley. The three-year, $100,000 partnership includes potentially aiding in the restoration and conservation of declining bee species in the state.

To date, no U.S. studies have quantified the benefits of pollinator-friendly plantings on solar sites. The research will have two goals: determine whether wildflower plantings on solar sites bolster pollinator populations, especially rare and threatened bees; and assess whether wildflower plantings on solar sites boost visitation to crop flowers, to correlate with a greater yield of pollination-depended crops and result in economic benefits to growers.

“My lab at Cornell is excited to team up with Cypress Creek on a groundbreaking study to quantify and assess the benefits of wildflower plantings on solar farms in New York,” said McArt. “Cypress Creek’s commitment to establish approximately 1,000 acres of pollinator habitat, while at the same time assessing the best ways to design that habitat, is truly visionary and a fantastic example of industry commitment to pollinator conservation and health.”

Pollinators – including bees, butterflies and hummingbirds – are currently declining in North America and elsewhere. For example, of the 412 species of wild bees in New York, 53 species are known to be experiencing population declines, 42 are considered vulnerable, and one species – the rust patched bumblebee – was recently placed on the federal endangered species list.

New York’s agricultural economy is highly dependent on bees, which are estimated to contribute $500 million in pollination services annually to crops such as apples, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries, blueberries, squash and beans. Alfalfa, a primary food stock for dairy cows in New York state, also depends on pollinators.

“In addition to generating clean, affordable energy, solar farms present an exciting opportunity to support pollinators and agricultural communities,” said Cate Parker, associate director of community partnerships at Cypress Creek. “We are delighted to partner with Scott McArt and Cornell University to quantify – for the first time in the United States – the local benefits of pollinator-friendly solar farms.”

Evidence suggests the loss of habitat is a leading cause of pollinator harm. Improving habitat by planting native pollinator-friendly species on solar sites could have a rapid and measurable impact on the conservation and restoration of pollinator populations, according to Cypress Creek.

“Efforts to increase the forage available to pollinators are critical to improving the sustainability of honeybees and other essential pollinators,” said Karen Sabath, co-founder of Hudson Valley Natural Beekeepers. “It is thrilling that Cornell University and Cypress Creek are taking an important step toward better understanding the ecological, agricultural and economic benefits of pollinator-friendly solar farms in New York.”

Jordan Macknick, principal investigator of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s InSPIRE study into low-impact solar development approaches, said, “Our modeling data shows that there are more than 6,400 acres of pollinator-dependent crops in the vicinity of existing New York large-scale solar sites. Future research, including this important work by Cornell University, will further refine and quantify the value of ecosystem and pollination services that can be provided to agriculture from pollinator-friendly PV solar arrays.”

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