There’s evidence that bee and butterfly populations are in decline, a phenomenon that some have dubbed the “insect apocalypse.” In response, the Colorado Department of Transportation has brought in a bug expert.
In the city of Golden, Jennifer Hopwood teaches transportation department employees how to tell a bee from a wasp or a fly.
“So, that was a quick and dirty rundown and now I’m going to quiz you on it,” she says to a group of about a dozen CDOT employees, including people in charge of designing roadsides and managing highway maintenance.
“What do you think? Bee or wasp?” she asks, as an image of a insect with a body that's half brilliant green, half yellow and black stripes comes up on the screen. It’s a bee.
Hopwood is a specialist in pollinator conservation with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. She says honeybees may have shaped the bee stereotype, but they’re actually newcomers to North America, arriving a few centuries ago with Europeans. Native bees often burrow nests in the ground, and some look like wasps or flies.
One fourth of Colorado’s bumblebee species are threatened and the western monarch butterfly isn’t doing well, either. Migrating populations recently reached a record low.
"CDOT's identified — with federal highways — the potential to help improve pollinator habitat along our roadsides," says Mike Banovich, a landscape architect with CDOT who organized the workshops. "Before that we were primarily focused on erosion control so our right-of-way consists of really aggresive grasses. But now the emphasis through our policy is to plant natives and then a step up is pollinator natives."
Roadsides can’t fix the habitat fragmentation that is part of the problem for insects, says Hopwood.
“But they’re a natural asset," she says. "It’s an important landscape feature that can provide connectivity and can support life cycles of different pollinators. And we have millions of acres of roadside, so it’s definitely an opportunity.”
She says less pesticides and more wildflowers and unmowed grass could help a lot. Next, Hopwood will make her way to the Western Slope to hold similar workshops there.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.