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Submitted photo John Jacob of Old Sol Apiaries locates 48 beehives on Pine Gate Renewables’ 13-acre solar farm in Eagle Point.

Nation's largest solar apiary a sweet collaboration

A cross-country collaboration between a Rogue River beekeeper and other sustainable energy companies broke a sweet record this past week.

John Jacob, owner and founder of Old Sol Apiaries, moved 48 honeybee hives onto the Eagle Point property owned by Pine Gate Renewables, where the bees will take up residence in a carefully planned neighborhood of solar panels and native flowering plants.

“It’s a project I’m really passionate about and I’m very excited to be part of,” Jacob said.

The site, called a “solar apiary,” is the product of months of coordinated planning among Old Sol Apiaries, Pine Gate, a developer of large solar farms in South Carolina and Oregon, and Lomakatsi Restoration Project, an Ashland-based ecological restoration organization.

Driven by research on the benefits of pollinators such as honeybees cohabitating with solar energy facilities sited in native vegetation, the venture became the nation’s largest solar apiary, said the Center for Pollinators and Energy, which tracks the facilities nationwide.

For Jacob, it’s an opportunity to introduce his honeybees to a more varied environment. Just as people survive best on a mixed diet, he said, bees also benefit from having different types of plants to pollinate.

Two of the biggest threats to pollinator populations, he said, are loss of habitat and exposure to pesticides in agricultural areas. The area within Pine Gate’s solar farm, he said, address both issues.

“Because these problems we face in commercial beekeeping are so tangible, you’re always on the lookout for good bee yard,” he said. “It’s like a great fishing hole, once you find one a great spot to put your bees.”

Pine Gate Renewables’ 41-acre solar farm (corrected) began operation at the end of December 2017 and provides enough electricity to power about 1,575 homes, the company said.

Pine Gate sought out ways to encourage native habitat and introduce pollinators, which is gaining steam as a conservation technique, said Julianne Wooten, environmental manager with the company’s SolarCulture division, which focuses on environmental stewardship and keeping agricultural land productive.

That’s where Lomakatsi and Old Sol fit in.

“I’m still in shock that this has all happened and fallen into place as much as it has,” Wooten said.

Lomakatsi specializes in native plant restoration, which involves determining what species grew on the land throughout various stages. It will reintroduce some species and bolster others that are already present.

The organization identified native flowering species growing on a third of the Eagle Point property, saving them from being weeded out while the property was prepped for its vegetation plan. That helped encourage Jacob to house his beehives there.

Combined solar and pollinator projects aren’t always incorporated smoothly, even in Oregon. Early this month, some farmland conservationists argued to the Land Use Board of Appeals that the presence of 100 honeybee colonies didn’t justify installing solar panels on designated farmland in Clackamas County. Various other solar projects in Jackson County have been rejected on land use grounds.

SolarCulture has identified other sites in Oregon where it plans to expand its pollinator habitat restoration efforts.

Meanwhile, beyond energy, the Eagle Point apiary is also expected to produce high yields of honey. Rob Davis of the Center for Pollinators said Jacob “knows how to keep happy bees” and typically gets above the usual yield from his colonies.

“I’m sure the folks in Medford will know exactly what to do with it,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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