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Interstates could be the highway to health for bee populations in Missouri

Ned Siegel
Bees with thriving pollination habitats along highway corridors with green spaces could improve urban food sustainability in the region and across the nation.

Highway and interstate corridors with green spaces could be the solution to growing bee pollinator habitats.

That’s according to preliminary results from a pilot study by scientists at St. Louis University and the Green House Venture. In 2015, the Federal Highway Administration called on states to enhance bee habitats on roadways in an effort to improve food sustainability in urban areas.

Gerardo Camilo, a biologist and leader of the study, said researchers nationwide urged Congress to act following concerns about the negative effects of declining bee populations and the food supply.

“The bulk of our pollinators were decreasing in abundance and diversity,” said Camilo. “This is something that people that study history, especially political history have recognized for a long time that nothing destabilizes a government faster than the people going hungry. Things like the cost of almonds that require pollination started to go up.”

In 2018, researchers in St. Louis built a terrace garden with agricultural crops in a 3.5-acre section of an embankment on the Interstate 44 corridor in the Shaw neighborhood. The group split the embankment in half, removing the existing grass and non-native trees and replacing them with native prairie plants. The other half was left alone.

Tomato plants sit in the terrace garden in an embankment among wildflowers along the Interstate 44 corridor.
Gerardo Camilo
Tomato plants sit in the terrace garden in an embankment among wildflowers along the Interstate 44 corridor.

Between 2018 and 2023, the number of bee species multiplied from two to more than 50 in the section that was replaced with the native prairie plants. Researchers even saw rare finds like the American bumblebee.

“If you restore and you already have enough of a wild bee population, they will start recolonizing those sites,” Camilo said.

Donald Stump, the director of curriculum for the Green House Venture, said that bees are attracted to areas that aren’t visually appealing but are filled with native plants that will keep them around.

“The flowers on our embankment are so beautiful,” Stump said. “They last all summer into the fall. We designed it to make sure that there are plenty of species that will be flowering at every point from early spring until late fall. So the bees will stay there.”

The St. Louis region has nearly 220 native bees. That’s almost half of the known bee species in the state. The group hopes to continue its research, but it needs more funding.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.