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Originally published Monday, November 10, 2014 at 11:41 AM

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Guest: Create more pathways for urban nature

It’s the smaller things in life that can have a major impact on the environment; take bees, for instance, writes guest columnist Mark Winston.

Special to The Times

Book reading

will be reading from his book, “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Capitol Hill in Seattle.


IT’S often the little things that have the most impact, although it’s the big and flashy we pay the most attention to. Nature in the city is very much like that: We remark on the coyote we see chasing down our neighbor’s cat, or the killer whale that might occasionally make its way past downtown Seattle, but these aren’t the organisms that maintain urban nature.

Seattle, like my home city of Vancouver, B.C., has a vast underbelly of bees, almost invisible until you look but then profuse in their diversity and abundance once they rise onto our radar. They inhabit the interstitial spaces, thriving so long as nectar and pollen-producing flowers, nesting sites and an environment free of toxic chemicals are available.

Bees in the city are a core urban resource. They provide a crucial ecological service, pollination, as they forage for nectar and pollen from flowers growing in backyard gardens, road edges, abandoned lots, railroad rights of way and myriad other green patches among the asphalt and concrete.

By fertilizing seeds when they pollinate, bees ensure that new plants arise each year to green Seattle, and support the contemporary explosion of interest in urban farming that wouldn’t be possible without a healthy pollinator population.

It’s honeybees that come to mind when we think of bees, and these managed insects are indeed a major component of Seattle’s urban bee subculture. There are 108 beekeepers and 681 colonies of honeybees registered in Seattle proper, and many more in the Puget Sound region — 466 beekeepers and almost 5,000 colonies. These honeybees, about 250 million individual bees at their summer peak, produce unique and flavorful urban honeys that are a complex blend of the many wildflowers and garden plantings that provide the nectar that the bees convert into honey.

Wild bees are less obvious, but are as important — or more important — to Seattle’s cityscape. A hundred or more species of these mostly solitary bees nest in hollow twigs, soil, brush piles and abandoned mouse nests, and are key to garden productivity and the profusion of flowering plants that beautify Seattle and other cities.

But we can’t take their presence and prosperity and that of honeybees for granted. There are many threats to bees in cities, particularly pesticides and urban development that replaces green with asphalt and concrete. Nature-loving cities today have reduced or even banned pesticides within their city limits, and new developments are expected to include garden plots and green spaces in which bees can prosper.

Seattle’s unique contribution to bees in the city has been its ecological corridor project, a thin but lengthy habitat planted with bee-friendly flowers and maintained with potential nesting sites for wild bees. The Pollinator Pathway began in 2007, the brainchild of Sarah Bergmann, an interdisciplinary thinker working across the fields of design, planning, art and science.

That project stretches a mile from Seattle University to Nora’s Woods. A second corridor is under development on Capitol Hill along 11th Avenue, and Vancouver, B.C., now has established a similar pollinator flyway.

Eventually, a national network might develop that not only connects fragmented habitats but also inspires a deeper conversation about how our human habitats and communities are similarly fragmented. These corridors enhance bee populations while serving as a visible reminder to respect the bees and their role in our cities.

They also prompt us to recall that we co-inhabit the planet with other species, a message particularly important in urban settings that can feel distant from nature.

Maintaining ecologically healthy environments is good for us as well as our nonhuman urban neighbors. Seattle’s pollination pathways inspire us to become connectors rather than fragmenters, proclaiming values of conservation and community within our society and between humans and the community of nature.

Mark Winston is a bee biologist and a senior fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue.

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