If you love blueberries or cherries, you ought to give thanks to the bee, says landscape designer Danielle Bilot. But not just the yellow honey bee — you should also raise a toast to the 4,000 different native bee species in the United States alone; the insects bringing tomatoes in summer and pumpkins in fall.
These bees are extremely effective at pollinating plants like blueberries, cranberries and cherries — and are vital to the health of eggplant and tomatoes, which honey bees cannot pollinate, reports the USDA. But like their honey bee compatriots, wild bees are also facing food shortages, disease and habitat loss.
In September 2016, seven wild Hawaii bee species were marked as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, nine North American native bee species are listed as possibly extinct by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Bilot is on a mission to help these bees thrive — through urban landscape design. Some areas have already taken up the cause: In the spring Cedar Rapids, Iowa will begin to convert 1,000 acres of unused public land, including right-of-ways, into pollinator habitats. In Seattle, designer Sarah Bergmann created the Pollinator Pathway, a mile-long corridor of bee-friendly plants that connects Seattle University to a nearby forest.
But Bilot’s plan is a tad different: she wants to transform parking lots into bee homes. In just a mile-and-a-half section of Houston, Texas — where Bilot has worked with the city’s Parks Department to plan for new bee habitats — the potential bee living space almost quadruples when parking lots are bee-friendly, she says. Adding pollinator plants to these lots creates a constellation of areas for bees to feed, nest and rest.
“[Most urban parking lots] already have planting regulations attached to them,” Bilot says in a talk at TEDxMileHighWomen. “We just have to use better plants.” Instead of lawn and mulch, Bilot asks for wildflowers and herbs. Instead of oaks or pines, Bilot advocates for fruiting trees. Bilot realizes bees in parking lots might sound a little creepy, but assures it is no big deal. “95% of [native bees] do not sting,” she says. “They are solitary and they live in the ground or in wood.” And if we value our food system, we should value these bees, she says.
Relying on typical green spaces (like city parks) to sustain wild bees is not working, she says. Some of these bees are so tiny that they can “only fly about three blocks before they need more food, and can die trying to get [to it].” Bees need pit stops for bees to recharge and refuel.
“Parking lots are an eyesore and a poor use of land, in my opinion,” Bilot says, “but [that] doesn’t mean that they have to be.” When landscaped for bees, parking lots can be fragrant and beautiful things — and help keep fresh blueberries on our plates.
To learn more, watch Bilot’s entire talk below: