A smiling person sits behinds a table, with people in the background looking at displays.

The Buzz Behind Bee City USA: Phyllis Stiles And Pollinator Conservation

By Melissa Manuel
 

In the world of pollinator conservation, Phyllis Stiles, of Asheville, North Carolina, is a name that resonates with passion, dedication, and tangible change. As the founder of Bee City USA, Phyllis started a movement that has not only raised awareness in her own town, but also sparked action in communities across the country. Her journey is an inspiring tale of dedication, education, and the power of community action. Join us as we delve into Phyllis’s story and the enduring impact of Bee City USA. 

Phyllis Stiles presenting a table display at a local environmental festival. She is smiling and surrounded by information about pollinators.
Phyllis is often at local events teaching her community about native pollinators and how to help them. (Photo: Phyllis Stiles).

A childhood surrounded by nature

“My earliest memories are of seeing a writing spider in a neighbor’s hedge and finding a cicada skin on the side of a pine tree in my backyard. They were fascinating to my preschool self,” she said, recalling her childhood in the heart of rural cotton mill country in Lancaster, SC. “Since that time, I have been drawn to colorful insects.”

Despite this, Phyllis refers to herself as an “accidental conservationist.” Everything started when her husband recruited her into beekeeping, in response to news about honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder. As she got more involved, Phyllis felt there was something missing in the conversation. “What I noticed was that there was lots of talk about losing hives to the varroa mite and starvation but very little talk about planting more flowers,” she said.

Bee City USA was created to focus on pollinator habitat

In 2012, Phyllis took action. “Pure frustration led me to start Bee City USA! I thought there must be something we could do to turn the situation around,” she said. With Bee City USA, Phyllis created a way for communities to organize and work together to provide healthy habitat for bees and other pollinators. Each Bee City project aims to create spaces that are rich in a variety of native plants, provide nest sites, and are protected from pesticides.

Initially, Bee City was primarily focused on reversing honey bee losses, but Phyllis’s perspective quickly evolved. “As I became more educated, I realized we were focusing on the wrong bees,” she admitted. While honey bees are a single, introduced species, the United States is home to just over 3,600 native (wild) bee species, including bumble bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, and many others. Native pollinators are crucial as they have evolved alongside their region’s plants, making them often the most effective (or only) pollinators. Despite their importance, many species of native pollinators are struggling or even facing extinction.

“Our native bees and other pollinators needed much more attention than honey bees, who seem to get more than their share. I suspect the honey bee and the monarch butterfly are the “gateway pollinators” for many pollinator conservationists like me,” Phyllis said.

A large metallic green bee atop a cluster of white flowers
Mason bees, like this Oregon berry bee (Osmia aglaia), are some of Phyllis’ favorite invertebrates, along with bumble bees and hummingbird moths. (Photo: Mace Vaughan / Xerces Society).

With the Xerces Society, the Bee City movement continues to grow

As Bee City expanded to new cities, and then to college campuses, Phyllis began looking for a partner to help keep the movement going. In 2018, Phyllis chose the Xerces Society to take on Bee City USA as one of its initiatives.

As of 2024, Phyllis’ intuitive impulse to plant more flowers is now a movement that has spread to more than 400 towns and campuses. Phyllis is proud of the incredible change she’s helped make in the world. “I am over the moon! Nothing brings me more joy than hearing stories of other people mobilizing their communities and campuses for pollinator conservation,” she said, adding that “I could not have found a better adoptive home for Bee City than the Xerces Society. I love Xerces’ all-hands-on-deck approach to Bee City, with so many resources to contribute to supporting the city and campus affiliates.” 

Phyllis Stiles, an older white woman with grey hair, talking to a crowd of young children and their parents at an event.
Phyllis continues to inspire the next generation of bug fans and pollinator conservationists at events like this “Pollinator Safari.” (Photo: Phyllis Stiles)

Looking forward, Phyllis hopes to see a paradigm shift in the way we manage our landscapes.  “As we accept the reality that the world’s resources are not infinite, we can choose to use them more wisely. The same idea [goes] for pesticides,” she explained. 

Phyllis is confident that this big change is already on its way. “It is thrilling when I encounter a grandparent who says they no longer use pesticides because their grandchild asked them not to. All the seemingly minor things we do in our yards add up to big impacts on sustaining insects and other species. Research shows it doesn’t take as much change as you would think before we reach cultural tipping points,” she said.

More Information:

Author
Melissa Manuel - Xerces Society
The Xerces Society
Melissa joined Xerces in 2022 as the Donor Engagement Specialist, working with the Membership team. She is a “retired” young farmer with over a decade of expertise in urban farming, agroforestry, garden design and education. Before joining Xerces, she worked as a horticulturist at Leach Botanical Garden. Melissa holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Portland State University and has worked with a number of environmental non-profit groups throughout her career.

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