State Turning Highway Median Into Bee Paradise

The Columbia Dispatch     By Kathleen Martini    August 10, 2014

The state is turning a Ross County highway median into a honeybee paradise.

The Ohio Department of Transportation planted wildflower seeds in two, 1-acre lots along Rt. 207 in June to start a three-year process to create habitats for bees and other pollinators, said ODOT District 9 spokeswoman Kathleen Fuller.

“The seeds, which are beginning to germinate, are a mix of native Ohio wildflowers, and they were planted as a combined mix so that they will grow successively,” she said.

That means flowers will bloom from spring through fall, beautifying the roadside and providing much-needed food for Ohio honeybees.

The sites will take about three years to mature, said ODOT engineer Dianne Kahal-Berman.

The flowers will be kept below 6 inches in the first year and below 1 foot in the second. After that, they’ll be allowed to grow to full height.

“They’ll be stronger at that point. They’ll have a strong root system,” Kahal-Berman said.

Bee populations have been dropping in recent years, as trends in agriculture affect their food supply, said Reed Johnson, an entomology professor at Ohio State University. “There’s been a shift in agriculture toward corn, and corn doesn’t really do anything for pollinators.”

Honeybees also have faced increasing numbers of diseases and pests in recent years that have thinned colonies and threatened the agriculture industry. Between 50 and 80 percent of bees kept by registered Ohio beekeepers died over the past winter.

Last year, Ohio had 4,390 registered beekeepers who tended an estimated 37,000 colonies at 7,199 apiaries. Since 2008, the number of beekeepers has increased by 27 percent.

Ohio farmers rely on bees to pollinate more than 70 crops, including apples, strawberries and pumpkins. Nationwide, honeybees pollinate more than $14 billion in crops each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Declining bee populations are a problem not just for Ohio. States across the country are experiencing the problem, and some have started developing pollinator habitats along roadsides and in other places to boost bee numbers.

Pollinator habitats such as those in Ross County can help boost bee population and honey harvests, which also have seen decreases, Johnson said. “Bees depend on flowers. They only eat nectar and pollen, and the only place to get nectar and pollen is from flowers.”

More than 70 percent of fruits and vegetables are pollinated and would be unable to grow without pollinators, Kahal-Berman said. “We’re losing them (the pollinators), and they’re extremely important to our welfare as human beings.”

Other areas of the state are taking note of the project. District 6, which includes Columbus and Franklin County, and District 8, which includes Cincinnati and Hamilton County, both are choosing planting sites, Fuller said.

“People are excited about doing this,” Kahal-Berman said. “They want to be a part of it.”

A similar program was started in Darke County about four years ago. The transportation department worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the conservation group Pheasants Forever to create habitats for monarch butterflies, pheasants and other wildlife in a prairie area along Rt. 36.

“There are different mixes being planted,” said John Kaiser, a wildlife management supervisor with Natural Resources. “What they do have in common is that both projects are to benefit wildlife habitat and benefit wildlife.”

The plantings also can help reduce roadside maintenance costs, such as mowing, Kaiser said.

Kahal-Berman said she’s confident the idea will grow.

“We’re learning to do it the right way, and we’re sharing that information with the other districts,” she said. “I know this is going to catch on.”

Ohio's Wildflower Recipe:

Here’s the butterfly/pollinators/songbird mix the Ohio Department of Transportation is planting along a highway median in Ross County:

• Little bluestem 25%

• Nodding wild rye 25%

• Indian grass 12.5%

• Purple coneflower 4.69%

• White wild indigo 4.69%

• Yellow coneflower 4.69%

• Lanceleaf coreopsis 3.13%

• Butterfly weed 2.81%

• Dense blazing star 2.81%

• Round-headed bush clover 2.5%

• New England aster 1.56%

• Tall coreopsis 1.56%

• Showy black-eyed Susan 1.56%

• Prairie dock 1.56%

• Stiff goldenrod 1.56%

• Wild bergamot 1.56%

• Smooth aster 1.56%

• Black-eyed Susan 1.25%

Source: Ohio Department of Transportation

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