Richmond delivers wildflowers for bees at city park

Image of flowers and powerlines in Richmond's pollination corridor
The public is invited to the Pollinator Pasture Picnic on June 4, an event to celebrate the new crop of wildflowers - designed to help bees and other pollinators - blooming under power lines at Bridgeport Industrial Park in Richmond.

BC Hydro supports pollinator corridors under power lines across B.C.

That faint, incessant buzz you hear in a strip of parkland in a Richmond industrial area isn't from the bees gathering to take advantage of the abundance of wildflowers. It's from the power lines above.

Built beneath a BC Hydro transmission power line, the City of Richmond's "pollinator pasture" at Bridgeport Industrial Park is literally a work of art, originally designed to take the shape of a pair of multi-coloured bee wings that can be viewed from jets on the flight path to Vancouver International Airport. And it's not just a treat for air passengers, or the runners and cyclists who frequent the path that runs through the middle of the park. It's a big help for bees and other pollinators, and a pilot program that everyone from bee advocates to BC Hydro hope takes off across B.C.

"The site was full of bees!," said an ecstatic Rene Roddick, a biologist with BC Hydro, after his first visit to the pollinator pasture. "The park was an ecological desert prior to the project – practically a giant lawn that was rarely used except as a walking path. Now it's put to much better use."

With the pollinator patch now in bloom, the City of Richmond has invited the public to what it's billing as the Pollinator Pasture Picnic, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 4. Park at Cambie Community Centre, walk down the path along Bath Slough, bring your picnic lunch to the park, join a tour, and enjoy the wildflowers.

Image of bee on flowers in Richmond's pollination corridor
Despite the farmland that surrounds industrial and residential areas of Richmond, pollination options for bees are relatively scarce. This bee is liking what it has found at Bridgeport Industrial Park.

A creative solution to a problem that began decades ago

The pollinator project came in the wake of an initially thorny issue: BC Hydro had to remove 120 pine trees – the wrong choice for trees under power lines, but planted years earlier – that had grown large enough to threaten the reliability of the power lines and/or the safety of workers and the public. The trees were also a maintenance headache, both for BC Hydro crews who had to regularly trim the tree tops, and for City of Richmond workers trying to cut the grass around the trees.

"We never want to lose trees, because you never get them back, especially mature trees," said Lesley Douglas, the City of Richmond's manager of environmental sustainability. "But we talked to BC Hydro and arrived at a happy medium."

BC Hydro worked with the City of Richmond to identify which trees could be kept and which had to be removed. As part of the solution, BC Hydro donated smaller, more compatible trees, while also retaining dozens of trees, including seven trees considered vital to wildlife. Then came the fun part.

The talks between BC Hydro and the City spawned a colourful idea. Why not turn a patch of that lawn near the Bath Slough end of the park into a wildflower pasture ideal for pollinators: from bees, to hummingbirds to butterflies?

Once the ball got rolling on the project, the patch literally grew, along with the list of enthusiastic participants. Richmond brought in Cameron Cartiere, an associate professor and researcher with the Emily Carr University of Art + Design who had used public art in concert with other pollinator pastures in neglected green belts. And Cartiere suggested the bee-friendly patch be extended to the entire narrow, 2.6-acre park.

"The collaboration was unique," says the City of Richmond's Douglas. "Emily Carr were the technical experts. We also partnered with West Coast Seeds, which are cognizant of using the right flowers to attract the right bees and pollinator species to the park.

"We also used artistic design by Emily Carr for the apiary and the site furnishings. It was like a one-stop shop. We didn't have to hire separate contractors for each component in the park enhancement contract. "

The park is now unlike any other in Richmond, complete with a beautiful "bee hotel" (apiary) and a riot of wildflowers . Not surprisingly, it's been a hit with the community, including students from Cambie Secondary who – starting with 600 sunflower seeds – created a sunflower wall as part of the 2015 pasture design.

BC Hydro's Roddick says the utility's collaboration with Richmond moved beyond the basics of vegetation management to transform the site into something that could – in a spectacular way – support Richmond's ecological network management strategy.

"It's a safer park with the big trees gone, there are maintenance cost savings for both BC Hydro and the City of Richmond, it's now a beautiful park, and the bees are happy," said Roddick.

The good news is that Richmond isn't alone in considering pollination pastures. Several other communities have since expressed interest and are currently looking into developing similar projects.

Asked to send along some advice to anyone else working on a pollination pasture in B.C., Richmond's Douglas says it's vital to pay attention to Mother Nature. While the Bridgeport site was designed to bloom throughout the pollination season, from spring through fall, the summer bloom will not be as fruitful as expected.

"This is not an irrigated pasture, it's a completely natural system," she says. "Working with the dry conditions, we didn't get the bloom of the full suite of species that we were hoping for."

Image of apairy in Richmond's pollination corridor
An apiary, sometimes referred to as a bee hotel, was also designed and built as part of a project that included an artistic flair courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Why the bees need our help, and why we need the bees

There are at least 450 species of bees in Vancouver, and at least one species – the Western bumblebee – has suffered major declines in population over the past two decades.

West Coast Seeds expert Brian Campbell told the Richmond News that while Richmond has a lot of active farmland, it's urban gardens that provide superior pollination opportunities for bees.

"We have farmland, but actually the city is much better for bees," Campbell told the Richmond News. "Blueberries and cranberries require a lot of fungicides and insecticides which are not bee-friendly at all. The residential areas are much friendlier for bees because you'll find greater diversity of food sources there than in, say, a blueberry patch."

Pollinators don't just need flowers to gather food, they also source nesting materials to build cells in their nests, and some actually nest in native plants. For the City of Richmond's Douglas, the importance of pollinators was hammered home by a surprising statistic she learned early on in what is known as the Bath Slough Pollination Project.

"It's been quite eye-opening for me," says Douglas. "I learned that one out of every three bites we eat is thanks to a pollinator."

And while we're at it, we'll add some more facts to the equation. For those visiting the Bridgeport Industrial Park who may be worried that they, or their kids, may be likely to be stung, Douglas assures you that most of the bees at the park are not "big biters" – they're likely to sting only when they're aggravated.

As for the buzz of BC Hydro's power lines, the science is on your side there, too. Health organizations, ranging from the World Health Organization to Health Canada have studied electric and magnetic fields (EMF) for more than 30 years and have concluded that there's no cause for EMF health concerns from power lines.

Again, that's more good news for the bees.

For more information about helping bees and other pollinators in your own neighbourhood, see information posted by SFU's Pollination Ecology Lab. If you're interested in adding a pollination pasture to a BC Hydro power line right of way, email BC Hydro properties.

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