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Pollinator recovery from Almeda fire uncertain

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Bees pollinating at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.

Impacts of the Almeda fire on pollinators are uncertain, according to leaders of organizations in Talent and Phoenix that work to preserve and increase the presence of the creatures.

There are no formal studies underway of the fire’s effects on the pollinators, but one group representative reports they seem to be present in decent numbers.

“In early spring I noticed there was a lack of pollinators despite the warm weather, but now they seem to have reached a resurgence,” said Gerlinde Smith, president of Bee City USA Talent. She has noticed a lack of mason bees, which may be related to the loss of some orchards, a favored habitat of the species.

Representatives from Pollinator Project Rogue Valley and Cascade Girl, both nonprofits, and Bee City USA Phoenix also gave their informal assessments. They stressed that pollinators encompass may more species besides honey bees and bumble bees, including wasps, moths, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds and more.

All the groups make efforts to educate the public on the importance of pollinators and steps to help them thrive. They also conduct hands-on efforts ranging from providing pollinator-friendly plants for fire victims to helping residents create pollinator-friendly gardens.

“The impact was on 3,000 acres. Seventy percent of bees are ground nesters,” said Kristina Lefever, director of Pollinator Project Rogue Valley. “Many beekeepers lost their hives, but in addition to the managed honey bees we also have these native bees who people are not so familiar with.”

Deep nesters may have survived, but a lot of bumble bees would have been putting nests together for the winter when the fire struck and would have been impacted, said Lefever. A lot of native bees lay eggs in fall, but the babies may have found little to eat when they emerged this spring.

Pollinator counts done in a garden behind the Pollinator Project Rogue Valley office in Phoenix have been up this year, but that may be due to establishment of a pollinator-friendly garden rather than any fire effect, said Lefever. Beyond that it’s difficult to assess the fire’s impact, she said.

“We lost forage. I’m sure we lost habitat. There’s no studies on that,” said Sharon Schmidt, who leads Cascade Girl and Bee City USA Phoenix. Cascade Girl sells honey from hives it keeps to finance efforts, but lost 10 hives with 300,000 bees in Phoenix during the fire.

“Actually, honey bee counts are good given that we have started anew. It’s been a remarkably good year when we think of how things could have been,” said Schmidt. The pandemic has limited communication among beekeepers, so she hasn’t heard how others are doing.

“Generally, what happens after a fire goes through, a lot of plants are released … a lot of plants are blooming, and of course that a benefit for the pollinators,” said Andony Melathopoulos, assistant professor with the pollinator health extension of Oregon State University. He said he didn’t know how the Almeda fire affected plants this year specifically and that the drought could impact the usual bloom.

A study done by three OSU College of Forestry researchers found that in rural forest settings both bee numbers and species numbers had increased where sites experienced high severity burns relative to the lowest severity areas. The study looked at areas impacted by the 2013 Douglas fire near Glendale.

Smith surveys presence of bumble bees for the Xerces Society at a site on Anderson Creek Road from May through August.

“I was really getting worried in April. Once the ceanothus was blooming it started to buzz a little more … but by the end of May they had bred some new ones so that was very encouraging,” said Smith.

The fire destroyed four of the private, pollinator-friendly certified gardens in Talent. Three of those have been reestablished and another 11 new gardens have been added, bring the number to 71, said Smith. All nine pollinator gardens planted on public spaces around the city survived the fire.

During the heat residents can aid pollinators by making water available, said Smith. Water can be placed in a planter or similar container and a few rocks added to give the animals a dry landing spot. She recommends checking the water daily.

Pollinator Project Rogue Valley offered native plants earlier this year to people impacted by the fire. The group has reached out to organizers of a Sept. 11-12 Almeda fire commemoration to offer help. That may include planting native plants during a walk on the Bear Creek Greenway and offering seeds or plants for people to take at other events. The group will hold a native plant sale Oct. 3.

In April, Bee City USA Phoenix, Cascade Girl and other organizations replanted and repaired a pollinator garden that had been established in Blue Heron Park in 2015 but was hit by the Almeda fire. This fall Bee City will do an education project at Phoenix Elementary School that will include selection of a flower and a bee that may become the official flower and bee for the city.

Cascade Girl maintains hives at other locations but would like to find a place to locate in Phoenix to replace the lost ones. The group has also launched an online education program in beekeeping for veterans.

Web addresses for more information include cascadegirl.org and pollinatorprojectroguevalley.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at boomwriter@gmail.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneBees pollinating at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Sharon Schmidt and Trevor Sanders check bee hives at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Bees in a hive at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Sharon Schmidt and Trevor Sanders check bee hives at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Sharon Schmidt check bee hives at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Sharon Schmidt and Trevor Sanders check bee hives at Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point Tuesday afternoon.