In May of 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Pollinator Friendly Solar Act that laid out voluntary standards for the planting of prairie grasses and wildflowers in the land under and around solar arrays. This legislation drew the attention of Travis and Chiara Bolton of the St. Paul-based Bolton Bees, and their interest has translated to a new honey collection operation on the border of Forest Lake and Scandia.
“With solar companies becoming pollinator friendly with the land around their arrays, it only made sense that the space should be utilized for honey production,” Chiara Bolton said. “The panels don’t affect the honey and the land has in the past been very underutilized.”
The Boltons initially teamed with Connexus Energy at its 1.2 acre SolarWise garden in Ramsey. That garden was the first U.S. solar facility to host a commercial bee operation. Since that time, the Boltons have expanded their operation.
“We manage hives throughout Washington County and often times in our travels we would pass by the array in Forest Lake at Scandia Trail and Manning Avenue,” Travis Bolton said. “We’d had out eye on it for some time and finally made a connection. We now manage 15 hives at that site.”
With the success at the Ramsey site and others that followed, the Boltons created a company called Solar Honey. They work with solar developers to provide apiary placement as well as custom jars and labels for honey from specific sites — including the Forest Lake-Scandia solar property, which was founded by SolarStone Partners as part of the Minnesota Solar Garden Program.
“In order to be certified solar honey, honey from individual solar sites must be collected separate from any hives that are not on a solar array,” Chiara said. “That way the solar array owner and the consumer can be sure that a certain batch of honey came from a certain solar array.”
The Boltons’ efforts were featured this year at the Minnesota State Fair. A special “Solar Honey Swirl” flavor of ice cream that blends the solar honey with vanilla was created to be sold at the Minnesota Honey Producers Association booth.
“There was a lot of buzz around this ice cream and people asked a lot of questions,” Chiara said. “They may have stopped for the ice cream, but they also got a little education and we were able to raise awareness about what we are doing with solar honey.”
Bees are on the decline so much so that the national news outlets have been providing reports about the lack of pollinator friendly landscapes.
“This project is an amazing way to find a way to utilize land for a really worthwhile purpose,” Travis said. “Often times in the past, solar companies would put down gravel or just dirt and now that we’re seeing pollinator friendly habitats coming to life around these arrays and we are able to place hives there, this is only going to help the bee population. The bee decline is due to a series of issues. This takes away one of those.”
Since receiving a fair amount of publicity for their foray into solar, the Boltons say their phone has been ringing often.
“There are a lot of developers nationwide that want to do this with their arrays,” Chiara said. “We coach them through the process and explain what it takes for honey to become solar certified. There are already plans to see solar honey in Maryland and Iowa and we are having conversations with many others.”
Currently, solar honey is available at Kowalski’s Market locations, and the Boltons have plans to expand the offerings in the coming months. More information can be found at solar-honey.com.