Solar garden plants draw bees, produce honey

Staff Writer
I cover the cities of Andover, Blaine and Ramsey. I have worked at ABC Newspapers since August 2007.

As far as it knows, Connexus Energy’s solar garden is the first in the state to have an apiary for honey bees.

Chiara Bolton (pictured) and Travis Bolton own Bolton Bees. They partnered with Connexus Energy to install 15 beehives by the solar garden on the Ramsey campus. Photos by Eric Hagen
Chiara Bolton (pictured) and Travis Bolton own Bolton Bees. They partnered with Connexus Energy to install 15 beehives by the solar garden on the Ramsey campus. Photos by Eric Hagen

The honey produced by the bees in 15 hives will not be commercially sold, but given to Connexus customers who have subscribed to receive a portion of their household energy from the solar garden on the Ramsey campus. Jars of “solar honey” will also be included in gift baskets that are donated to local fundraising causes, according to Samantha Neral, Connexus Energy spokesperson.

Travis and Chiara Bolton, owners of Bolton Bees, installed the 15 beehive boxes in Connexus’s solar garden at the southeast corner of Bunker Lake and Ramsey boulevards on April 24. The honey will be ready to be harvested later this summer and they expect to produce 600 jars. Solar subscribers will be told when they can pick up their jar of honey.

“Connexus Energy’s project is a shining example of what a solar site can and should be,” said Rob Davis, a spokesperson for Fresh Energy and the person who first connected Connexus Energy and Bolton Bees.

This is possible because Connexus planted flowers that attract pollinators.

Neral said just prior to Connexus installing its 792 solar panels in the summer of 2014, its engineers suggested gravel beneath the panels. A group of people, including herself, thought the site would look much better with some flowers.

They connected with Prairie Restoration and Fresh Energy to brainstorm and came up with a garden beneath its solar array that includes 10 species of native grasses and 36 species of flowers, according to Colleen Hollinger, spokesperson for Prairie Restorations.

The benefit is giving habitat for bees and Monarch butterflies, which have been on the decline. More birds will also be attracted to the garden to feed on the caterpillars, Hollinger said.

Additionally, Davis said pollinator-friendly gardens puts more organics into topsoil. He pitched farmers to install pollinator-friendly gardens since it could improve crop yields for soy beans and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

These gardens are also better long-term solutions for managing water run-off than gravel beds and turf grass, he said.

Fresh Energy is an advocate of pollinator-friendly solar gardens because these co-ops and companies have large amounts of land to plant grasses and flowers and would have hired a company for ongoing management.

“Connexus’ pollinator-friendly solar array will provide pollinator habitat equivalent to 726 houses having a 6-foot-by-12-foot pollinator garden,” Davis said.

Honey production

Greg Groenjes first presented the idea of having honey-producing hives near the solar garden.

Groenje is manager of construction, maintenance and systems operations for Connexus, but his side hobby is beekeeping.

He had planned to bring a couple of hives to Connexus this spring, but all the bees died this past winter.

Bolton Bees sells starter colonies that are bred to better adapt to the colder northern climate.

The company also produces a line of different honey products and intends to register Solar Honey for a federal trademark. This would not give Bolton Bees exclusive rights, but it creates industry standards for honey produced on or adjacent to solar arrays.

“With its abundance of pollinator-friendly flowers, the Connexus solar garden is the perfect environment for a healthy bee location,” Travis and Chiara Bolton said.

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Bolton Bees installed 15 beehives by Connexus Energy’s solar garden in Ramsey. Connexus Energy’s garden by its solar panels on the Ramsey campus attracts pollinators, including bees. Photo by Rob Davis, Fresh Energy Connexus Energy will give this “solar honey” to its members who subscribe to get some of their energy from the Solarwise garden and to groups it assists for fundraisers.
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Connexus Energy will give this “solar honey” to its members who subscribe to get some of their energy from the Solarwise garden and to groups it assists for fundraisers.