Last month, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to designate San Francisco as a Bee City. (Courtesy photo)

A little buzz could make a big impact in San Francisco

Environmentalism can seem out of touch. Take, for example, the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous decision last month to designate San Francisco as a Bee City. If I was facing eviction or scared of the police, I’d be frustrated our elected officials were spending time protecting bees. But I think the designation may inspire beneficial changes in San Francisco for people and pollinators.

“We need to pay attention to literally the little things in life because they have such a big impact,” Supervisor Katy Tang, who proposed the designation, told me.

Of course, The City’s commitment to restoring natural habitats and reducing pesticides has a big impact on San Francisco’s little residents. According to a recent United Nations report, 40 percent of pollinator species now face extinction. Two weeks ago, the federal government listed seven bee species as endangered for the first time. San Francisco’s numerous native bees and butterflies may now (hopefully) escape this fate.

But reducing pesticides and restoring natural habitat could also create healthier, more connected communities for San Francisco’s human residents.

The City has almost eliminated pesticides linked to cancer, reproductive harm and environmental degradation on city properties. It also prohibited neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides suspected of contributing to honeybee colony collapse disorder. But other pesticides, like glyphosate — the ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup — are still permitted.

After the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, The City classified it as hazardous and restricted its use. But the San Francisco Forest Alliance posted a Facebook video of a city crew spraying the pesticide in Glen Canyon Park this June. Unlawful pesticide use could be dangerous and harmful.

“The next step, I think, is examining on a deeper level our city’s use of pesticides,” Supervisor Tang told me. “I think we could hold our city departments to higher standards.”

I agree, but I also think we should examine all pesticide use on a deeper level. Hazardous pesticides are unnecessary in private gardens and can hurt people, pets and pollinators.

To help residents garden sustainably, The City has tools like SFPlantFinder.org and works with gardening and hardware stores to provide nontoxic pesticides labeled “Our Water, Our World.” It also recently partnered with Bay Friendly Landscaping to offer sustainable landscape training in Spanish for the first time. I attended the first class last week and was happy to see the room filled with more than 20 people.

Will these efforts actually reduce San Franciscans’ use of pesticides? I’m not sure. Reducing the entire city’s use of pesticides requires the same behavior change behind composting. If city officials want to effect this change, they need bold ideas.

But the biggest change I hope Bee City brings is more interaction with our neighbors and nature. The City has spent decades supporting pollinator health and biodiversity in its parks, while too many San Franciscans live in isolated, concrete communities. Integrating people and pollinators could strengthen our entire urban ecosystem.

“Breaking up pavement and building gardens not only provides habitat, it also supports a healthy climate and sewer system,” Markos Major, the founder and director of Climate Action Now, told me. The nonprofit set a goal to remove 100,000 square feet of cement in San Francisco by 2020. “What’s equally exciting is how it brings communities together. If someone is outside watering once a week, they get to meet their neighbors.”

A limited number of residents in the Richmond and Bayview can get a free front yard garden from Climate Action Now. In the Sunset, Supervisor Tang is also helping residents convert pavement into drought-tolerant gardens. With Bee City, programs to replace pavement with natural habitat should be available throughout San Francisco.

I think Bee City is a victory for The City’s human and nonhuman residents. As San Franciscans have seen too many times, one community’s burden affects us all. Ultimately, helping our little neighbors will make our whole City stronger.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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