Aja Stewart and her daughter Rainey, 4, search for bees in a tree in bloom. (Kira Erickson / South Whidbey Record)

Aja Stewart and her daughter Rainey, 4, search for bees in a tree in bloom. (Kira Erickson / South Whidbey Record)

Whidbey Island farmers alarmed over absence of native bees

Or, how the housing shortage and rising lumber prices may be driving pollinators away.

CLINTON — South Whidbey Island farmers are sounding the alarm about a low number and a late emergence of native pollinators this spring and the impact of a recent spate of clear-cuts to the forest’s ecosystem.

Jake Stewart, owner of Sweetwater Farm in Clinton, has noticed a remarkable absence of mason bees and bumblebees. His farm has several flowering trees and rhododendron bushes in bloom that have attracted many pollinators in years past.

“This time last year you could just stand in the forest and hear the buzz of bees,” he said.

This year, however, he reported that he has counted only a few bumblebees.

“It’s quite startling actually to have everything in bloom, but no bees buzzing around,” he said.

Stewart’s concerns are shared by other South Whidbey farmers, some of whom spoke at a recent Island County commissioner meeting.

Yet Timothy Lawrence, director of Island County’s WSU Extension Office, believes the perceived lack of bees is only a “seasonal variation.” Lawrence, who is considered a bee expert in the state, was a researcher for the Honey Bee Health Program in the WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences’ Department of Entomology.

He said he has noticed bees on his property near Coupeville this spring.

“It takes a certain skill to look for bumblebees,” Lawrence said. “You have to sit there for a few minutes and take everything out of focus and look for movement.”

Bumblebees, unlike honey bees, overwinter as individuals and not as a colony unit, he explained. The queen comes out of hibernation and has to find her own nest while foraging for pollen and nectar by herself. Once the colony is built up, she can stay there and produce eggs. It takes about 15 to 28 days to build up a bumblebee nest.

Climate change may be affecting bumblebee populations, but Lawrence said he has not noticed a shortage of them on the more northern parts of the island.

A diversity of bees and flowering plants — such as poppies or sunflowers — ensures good pollination.

“Next year, it might not be a problem at all,” he said of the South End farmers’ concerns. “Nature is not a predictable animal.”

New clear-cuts, Stewart believes, may be to blame for the missing bees. Lawrence said whenever a recent clear-cut has happened nearby, it may disturb some of the bumblebee nests.

A combination of an increase in timber prices and the pressure to develop have aggravated the deforestation.

Recent development on the island, Stewart pointed out, has done nothing to alleviate the housing shortage for people who are working at restaurants and retail jobs on the island.

The most “egregious” actors, he said, are off-island developers who have taken advantage of loopholes that allow them to engage in the practice of pulling a class 2 or 3 permit, which he referred to as “non-conversion” permits, and converting the property out of forest land “after the fact,” once they’ve clearcut and sold the timber.

He said there are currently no consequences for this action. Other counties, such as San Juan County, have already prohibited these types of conversions.

“We work the land every day,” he said. “We see changes. It’s our occupation. Our livelihood depends on the health of the natural infrastructure all around us, and forests are a big part of that.”

He is hopeful that Island County will also consider taking a greater role in preserving the natural infrastructure of Whidbey and valuing its forest systems for more than just timber.

“Leave the arguments of the past behind,” Stewart said. “It’s not, don’t cut any trees. It’s, let’s have a rational conversation about what forests do for us and then accurately reflect that in the value and incentives we give it in the code, because that’s not there now.”

He also suggested having options for property owners that value choices that benefit the public, particularly farmers who need larger ecosystems to continue having a local healthy farm and food system.

Eighteen farmers approached the county commissioners at their May 4 meeting about the issue, voicing their concerns about the lack of native pollinators and urging action to be taken in regards to the development.

Farmers as far north as Greenbank shared their perspectives.

Nathanial Talbot of Deep Harvest Farm said the state Department of Natural Resources values old-growth forests at $43,000 to $74,000 per acre for all the ecosystem services they provide. In comparison, timber harvest is valued at a lower rate.

“I’ve become acutely sensitive and aware of the potential harms and current harms that our island is facing because of this accelerated grade of deforestation and the lack of ecosystem services by the lack of old growth forests on our island,” Talbot said.

He emphasized that the farmers were not against building houses but that they would love to see more affordable housing for farm and restaurant workers.

“But the way we’re doing it right now by allowing these off-island developers to come in and cut down our forests and run with their money and then convert it to a couple subdivisions is not really working out,” Talbot said.

“We are not against development, we just want it to be more thoughtful,” Stephen Williams of Foxtail Farm said.

Others pointed to the island’s abundant natural resources as being something that drew them from hotter climates that have been devastated in recent years by wildfires and other natural disasters brought on by climate change.

Many spoke about the importance of keeping the island’s character intact for the next generation of farmers.

Aja, Stewart’s wife, said her daughters are cognizant of the recent logging near their farm.

“Every clearcut that we pass by, their eyes get bigger,” Aja said. “They ask where the birds are going to go.”

River, 6, and Rainey, 4, both carried colorful signs during the meeting that read “Future Farmer for the Forest.”

“My request to you is to go home, to find ‘The Lorax’ and to read it through the lens of Whidbey children,” Aja told the commissioners.

Heather Talley, who works on Sweetwater Farm and knows the Stewart girls, encouraged the commissioners to think in the long term.

“These girls were born onto a beautiful island and I want that island to stay that way their whole lives, and for their children to be able to experience it too,” Talley said.

“We don’t have 40 to 60 years to undo a mistake, we have to stop it now,” she added.

Caitlin Stanton, the owner of a newer organic farm in Greenbank, said she was hopeful her son might be able to inherit her farm one day.

“Being among the first to make this kind of change can feel uncomfortable and unconventional, but history is going to regard it as courageous, wise and long overdue,” she told the commissioners.

Joe Italiano read aloud a letter written by 12 students from the Calyx Community Arts School, who asked for the clear-cuts to stop and for more trees to be planted.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon thanked Stewart for his letter to the commissioners detailing solutions the county could take in regards to logging.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said some multigenerational landowners who have clear-cut their land have had no other option in order to save their property.

“What we’re talking about right now is eliminating some peoples’ choices, maybe their economic value and livelihood, of the crop that’s on their land, which is timber,” she said.

She added that she was very happy to see the children engaged with the issue.

This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sister publication to The Herald.

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