My kids have been actively engaged in recent weeks helping caterpillars morph into butterflies by feeding them milkweed grown in a neighborhood pollinator garden. The caterpillars are currently in the cocoon phase, and upon their emerging from their chrysalis, we will be releasing the butterflies for their migration southward. As 7- and 4-year-olds, the kids are already learning about the importance of providing adequate forage to protect and support these amazing creatures that are so critical to the overall health of our ecosystem.
Native pollinators — butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, bees and other insects — move pollen from plant to plant, providing a sustainable reproductive pathway for many of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and plants that other animals higher up the food chain and we human beings rely on for sustenance. Unfortunately, these important creatures are being crowded out by a growing human population that has more than doubled over the past 50 years to 7.5 billion and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. This has resulted in a loss of critical habitat which, combined with widespread use of pesticides, has had devastating impacts on the pollinator population. Here in Vermont, there were 17 species of bumblebees 25 years ago. We are now down to 10 species, and seven of these are endangered, including the previously common rusty patched bumblebee, whose population has plummeted 87 percent since the late 1990s and has recently been declared an endangered species.
As we seek to move to a more localized food production system, it will be critical to ensure the health of all pollinator species to ensure the future health of our agricultural land. Here at Encore Renewable Energy, we are making an effort to do just this — similar to what my kids are doing at home and in our neighborhood. Our efforts have been focused on utilizing the unused portions of solar arrays we have developed and constructed to provide some of the critical habitat necessary for pollinators to thrive.
Over the past few years, Encore has engaged with the good folks from Bee the Change to provide the appropriate ground cover seed mix that we have planted at a number of our solar projects. This is the perfect example of a successful triple-bottom-line endeavor, as we are creating environmentally sustainable ground cover that improves soil quality, fixes roots into the ground, and channels storm water back into underlying aquifers, while addressing the social importance of supporting healthy food systems. And, we are saving money. The establishment of a healthy pollinator-friendly ground cover will reduce the long-term mowing costs associated with these projects. We are also helping to create additional economic benefit. Honey-bee pollination, alone, has been found to add more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops in the U.S.
We are having success. A survey of pollinator populations at an early demonstration project in Middlebury resulted in an increase of greater than five-fold in unique pollinator populations in just one year. That impact will extend beyond the boundaries of that particular solar project to support other species that rely on strong pollinator populations, including birds, fish, other animals and, ultimately, all of us, as well.
Chad Farrell, of Burlington, is founder and chief executive officer of Encore Renewable Energy.