- Associated Press - Saturday, August 2, 2014

ZIRCONIA, N.C. (AP) - Usually when folk singer Dar Williams travels to Western North Carolina on tour, she draws crowds of excited fans to Asheville venues such as The Grey Eagle or The Orange Peel. But Williams recently embarked on a more low-key tour of the region with the goal of creating a buzz of a different sort.

Williams performed songs from her eight studio albums during two mini-concerts at Pisgah Girl Scout Camp in Brevard and Green River Preserve in Zirconia, then got down in the dirt the next morning with campers to plant flower gardens designed to help bees and other pollinators.

With support from the Xerces Society, an insect conservation group, Williams has been taking her campaign to save declining honeybee populations to summer camps since 2011. Honeybees provide $15 billion in pollination services for U.S. farmers, yet their numbers have plummeted since 2006.

Scientists say habitat loss is one reason bee populations are on the wane. So on Wednesday, Williams and her 5-year-old daughter, Taya, helped seven Green River Preserve campers plant phlox, purple coneflower, swamp hibiscus, yarrow and other nectar-producing plants at the camp’s farm on Green River Road.

Trowel in hand, Williams helped the campers line up the potted plants with the tallest-growing ones clustered in the center. She counseled them to dig their holes deep enough to cover the plants’ roots, “then dig it deeper, because that’s the rule - it’s always a little deeper than you think you’re going to need.”

“Look, there’s a pollinator already!” said camper Jackson Byrnes, 14, as a bumblebee took off from the sweetspire plant the Wilmington native was holding.

“Well, we’re proving that we’re doing the right thing,” said a smiling Williams, who later handed out packets of milkweed seeds and “Pollinator Protection Pledge” cards for the campers to sign and send back to the Xerces Society.

Like many things she does, from installing solar panels at her home in New York’s Hudson Highlands to writing a book about vegetarian eateries, Williams’ “Give Bees a Camp” program came about organically.

“I wanted to hang out with kids, but I didn’t want to teach songwriting because it’s intensely personal and that can really hurt - you know, it can be a trauma if you do it right,” said Williams, whose own songs have focused on the issues of gender identity, adolescence and religion.

After reading an article about Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees mysteriously abandon their hives, Williams called a beekeeper she knew in Vermont for advice. “And he really pushed me to concentrate on flowers,” she said.

Cornfields, golf courses and most suburban lawns are “bee deserts” saturated by harmful chemicals, she learned, so the idea of encouraging kids to plant organic flower gardens to provide healthy forage for bees, bolstering their immunity, seemed like a proactive step she could take in concert with children.

“That’s like a real kids-to-the-rescue kind of problem, but you have to decentralize it,” said Williams. “It’s not like we should all move to Peoria and plant flowers there. So what is more decentralized and safe and chemical-free than a summer camp? And where are you going to find a more eager group of people to plant the flowers and steward them than kids?”

Not everybody was thrilled with the idea of her planting bee-friendly gardens with campers, Williams admitted. Her mom and management company worried that kids would recoil at the idea of being stung, “but all the people at the camps, and my (beekeeper) dad said, ‘Bees don’t like to sting - yellowjackets do.’ If you don’t want to get stung by a yellow jacket, then don’t drink soda or eat ice cream outside.”

Williams visits about five summer camps a year promoting bee gardens. She doesn’t drone on about the science of honeybee declines, which researchers attribute to a combination of factors including pesticides, exotic predatory mites, viruses carried by the mites and habitat loss. She prefers to focus on the fun task of digging in the earth and fostering colorful blooms.

“Once I started doing summer camps, I saw this is where you’re encouraged to deepen your connection,” she said. “Whether it’s a day camp, a city camp or one of these very special deep-in-the-forest enchanted camps, they’re all values-based and they all tell kids that if they see a spider, or a snake or a bee, stare at it instead of getting scared… respect nature on its own terms, as opposed to thinking of it like a bat in your basement that you have to call the police to get rid of.”

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