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'Pollinator scorecard' could help solar developers amp up proposals

 The East Lansing Community Solar Park. (Photo: Michigan Energy Options)
The East Lansing Community Solar Park. (Photo: Michigan Energy Options)
-Michigan’s recent climate legislation names MSU’s pollinator scorecard as a tool solar developers can use to demonstrate how they’re mitigating impact to the land.

-Planning and caring for pollinator habitat can be complicated, making sure the right pollinators are matched up with the right species of plants.

-Along with the scorecard, MSU has created a pollinator initiative website.

Michigan’s recent climate legislation names Michigan State University’s pollinator scorecard as a tool solar developers can use to demonstrate how they’re mitigating impact to the land.

There are many pollinators in Michigan, including over 460 bee species, and they all have different needs. For example, honeybees are “generalists.”

“They can work many different types of flowers, they have kind of a mid-range tongue, but we have bees with very short tongues, and they need very specific types of flowers,” said Meghan Milbrath, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Entomology.

Milbrath helped develop the university’s pollinator scorecard several years ago.

The state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, is getting ready to implement a new siting law that gives it the power to approve large renewable energy projects.

When a developer proposes something like a big solar farm, it can sweeten the permit application in a few different ways, including building habitat around the solar array to offset damage to the land.

The pollinator scorecard will be among the criteria commissioners can consider. It includes measuring the diversity of the plants and how a site is prepared.

The scorecard is an approach promoted by other states and the federal government as a way to create or conserve important habitat for pollinators, which they rely on for food and nesting sites. But it’s not as simple as scattering a few seeds around solar panels.

“We had a lot of conversation about the border around the solar panels versus under the solar panels, and then how you'd have to parcel up different sites as well,” Milbrath said, “So having one scorecard, I think, is a nice place to start the conversation, but it isn't necessarily going to be the final thing that determines… how good a particular site is going to be for pollinators.”

A honeybee gathers pollen around the greenhouse at Interlochen Center for the Arts on Aug. 4, 2023. Director of Sustainability Emily Umbarger points out that this bee has "pollen pants." (Video: Izzy Ross/IPR News)

Milbrath said developers need to tailor their projects to the region they’re working in.

“A lot of the scorecard has to do with site selection, site prep, how you choose your plants,” she said. “But really, five years from now, is this providing healthy habitat?”

Curating healthy habitat in the long-term can be complicated. For one, each site is different — sandy, muddy, hilly. And even though certain species are widespread, like Black Eyed Susans, many have local variants that common seed mixes don’t take into consideration.

That can hinder pollinators that rely on specific plants.

“It's called pollination syndrome, where some of the pollinators have ... a one-to-one relationship with a flower,” Milbrath said. “And so if you don't have that flower, you don't have that pollinator. And that could be both for getting food and then also, especially for butterflies, for feeding the larvae, and then also for habitat for nesting sites and for cocoons and things like that.”

Milbrath also cautioned against what she calls “bee-washing” — actions that are purported to help bees, but aren’t actually all that helpful.

To help address the many questions that come along with trying to support pollinators, MSU has developed a pollinator initiative, which includes training and resources for bee-keeping and planting responsibly.

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with IPR and Grist, a nonprofit independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with