Bee Concerned – an appeal on behalf of our parks’ hardest working volunteers

Six years ago, honeybees began to vanish. If you’re predisposed to a squeal and an awkward dance in public every time an airborne stinger comes your way, you may not be too bummed about this. Good – you might think – less likely to embarrass myself at this year’s company picnic. Truthfully, you should be concerned (and yes, a little embarrassed).

Bees on the roof at The Porch – photo courtesy Mark Broadhurst of Eat ‘n Park Hospitality Group

The disappearance of bees could radically change the food we eat and how much we pay for it. According to Stephen Repasky, Vice President and Apiary Director for the local bee-loving non-profit, Burgh Bees, honeybees are responsible for pollinating over one third of the food we eat citing apples, pumpkins, berries and cucumbers as examples. There are many foods like almonds, which will not grow at all without pollination from honeybees. The Agriculture Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (ARS) estimates that “Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.” Not to mention how vital they are to the flowers we all love in our parks and gardens.

Recently, we’ve been losing about 30% of the honeybee population annually. While this phenomenon has a name – Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – the cause is still up for debate. According to the ARS, “The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive, but with a live queen and no dead honeybee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present.” It is widely believed in the apiary community that the cause for CCD is the emergence of a new type of pesticides called neonicotinoids which were developed in the mid-1990s. There have been studies to support this hypothesis, but they have not been deemed conclusive by the ARS. Other theories have included mites, fungal and viral infections, and even cell phone tower transmissions.    

While the use of pesticides in an urban setting is still problematic, Repasky says that people actually pose the greatest threat to city honeybees. “We as a society are too quick to take a can of raid to that nest of ‘bees’,” he says. “The more we can get people to understand that honeybees are a necessity, even in the city, the better off we will be.” He points out that honeybees are actually quite docile, and that since they’ll die if they sting you, they reserve their aggression to protect their hive. They’re also unlikely to care about your picnic lunch or the sugary cocktail you drink on your back deck. “Honeybees are not the wasps and hornets that people usually associate with being stung,” laments Repasky. “Unfortunately society lumps any stinging insect into a ‘bee’ and that is not the case.”

Echinacea, also called Purple Coneflower is a favorite for honeybees, pictured here in Schenley Plaza.

Burgh Bees is trying to change that in Pittsburgh. In 2008 they established to create a community for urban beekeepers and to provide places for them to have hives if they don’t have a place of their own. They created and manage the nation’s first community apiary in Homewood where people participate much in the same way they would at a community garden. They teach beekeeping classes and try to educate Pittsburgh residents on the necessity of honeybees. Recently, they partnered with The Porch at Schenley restaurant in Schenley Plaza where they manage a hive on the roof that may be producing 40-60 lbs of honey annually by next year.

At the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, we appreciate the importance of the ecological health of our parks, a system in which honeybees play a vital role. To do your part, the ARS advises not to use pesticides indiscriminately and to avoid applying such chemicals at mid-day when the bees are out in the greatest numbers whenever possible. They also suggest planting native plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen such as red clover, foxglove, echinacea and joe-pye weed.

 Kathleen Gaines is a Development Associate at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. To learn more about the bees at The Porch, check out the upcoming issue of our newsletter.  

Board Member Spotlight: Rep. Dan Frankel

Dan Frankel

Rep. Frankel visits Nine Mile Run in Frick Park.

A native Pittsburgher, Dan B. Frankel has served as State Representative for the 23rd Legislative District in Allegheny County since 1998.  He grew up using Pittsburgh’s park system, is a current member of the Parks Conservancy’s Board of Directors, and has been a dedicated supporter by advocating for funding for Schenley Plaza and continuing his support with the Environmental Center at Frick Park.  We interviewed him for the fall edition of the Parks Conservancy’s newsletter, The Voice.

What’s your favorite Parks Conservancy project?

Schenley Plaza.  The Conservancy took a parking lot and turned it into a community square.  It’s such a huge improvement, and it’s amazing to see the mix of people that use it.

How do you use the parks?

I grew up using the parks, and I still actively use Schenley and Frick all time.  They are just fabulous assets.  My kids grew up using the parks, and living in the city, it was extraordinary to have access to open space. 

Why are parks important to cities?

I’ve travelled a great deal and lived elsewhere, including New York City, and I can’t think of a more unique system of parks, nestled into neighborhoods.  Parks are essential to quality of life in the city; they’re part of what makes us “The Most Livable City.”

How have you witnessed the Parks Conservancy improve Pittsburgh?

Under the Conservancy, each park has had a significant, meaningful, and symbolic rejuvenation.  I remember when Meg came up with the idea, and I thought it was a great idea but was honestly pretty skeptical.  I thought it might be too grandiose.  I am glad that I was wrong; the results are monumental. 

People in the parkHow do the parks improve public health?

Parks are great places where class and economic distinction melt away, and you see people from every generation.  They offer active recreation and opportunities to improve both physical and mental health — a place to socialize and decompress.

You are supportive of the Environmental Center at Frick Park.  Why do you believe that this project is so important? 

I was delighted to secure funding for a feasibility study for this great education tool for people in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood.  Even better, there are several schools which can use the center, all within walking distance.

Fall newsletter is online!

The Voice Just a heads-up that you can now read our Fall 2010 edition of “The Voice” online!  You can find this issue (and all our back issues) here. Our top story in this issue is the growing number of threats to our forests, from oak wilt disease to emerald ash borer to the ever-growing population of white-tail deer.  We also spotlight some of the incredible volunteer contributions the University of Pittsburgh and other groups have made to us this season, and Phil takes on the subject of native vs. non-native trees in his regular “Phil-osophy” column.

Speaking of “Phil-osophy,” don’t be shy!  If you’ve got a burning question about the parks, their ecology, or just one of our projects, leave a comment for us below and you may see it answered in a future newsletter!

How Do Our Gardens Grow?

Angela MastersAs the number of landscaped sections of the parks has increased, the Parks Conservancy is pleased to welcome a Gardener to its staff in Angela Masters.  Angela is responsible for general maintenance of the gardens, including weeding, deadheading, transplanting, fertilizing, and insect control.  She focuses on the landscaped areas of the park like the newly restored Mellon Park Walled Garden, the Highland Park Entry Garden, Schenley Plaza, the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center, and the Riverview Park Chapel Shelter.

Angela previously worked as a Landscape Service Coordinator for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.  She also worked at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA and Trax Farms in Finleyville, PA.  She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from Pennsylvania State University. 

Schenley PlazaThe addition of a gardener attests to the Parks Conservancy’s commitment to preserving the parks and the long-term maintenance of capital projects, like the Walled Garden and the Highland Park Entry Garden.  Angela said, “Time and effort go into the installation of a new garden, and many people are excited about it opening, but not everyone realizes the level of maintenance that projects require.  I am passionate about taking care of our gardens and keeping them as close to the original intent as possible.” 

Angela also mentioned that the physical exertion of her job is a big perk.  She said, “I work every day, but I can eat whatever I want without going to the gym!”

If you missed it last month, you can see Angela give a video tour of the Schenley Plaza gardens here.

Planting the Seeds – High School EcoStewards

I spent part of an afternoon in June with some students from City High who signed up to become High School Urban EcoStewards (you can read about their program here).

Since 2003, the Urban EcoStewards Program has provided parks across Pittsburgh with a large group of long-term volunteers to care for sections of green space while working to improve their natural value.   In spring 2010, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy launched an effort with the students of City High and the Student Conservation Association to create High School Urban EcoStewards through a grant from Heinz Youth Philanthropy. 

City High Urban EcoStewardsThis spring, 20 students from City High’s 10th grade class cared for a section of parkland by Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park.  The students performed the same tasks as other Urban EcoStewards, such as removing invasive plants, planting native plants, and controlling erosion.  Students paired their monthly site visits with science-journaling, which builds observation and recording skills.  The program fulfills City High’s 10th grade service learning requirement, and the students are able to spend three hours a month on a Friday afternoon in the park.

16-year-old Graham Evans said, “We’ve learned how to identify many different plant species and maintain an environment.  It feels like an adventure!”

The students learned to identify invasive species like tree of heaven by its rotten-peanut butter aroma.  (I’m not kidding – it really smells like that.)  It was hilarious to watch these students discover the joys of popping the native jewelweed.  They quickly became addicts, searching the Schenley Park trails for new buds to pop.

JewelweedIn case you have no clue what I’m talking about, this is jewelweed.  The green coils behind the flowers aren’t always easy to see, but if you lightly squeeze them in your hands, they make a very satisfying pop.  It is addicting! 

Thanks to a new $50,000 grant from the Grable Foundation, the program will continue.   The High School Urban EcoSteward program will expand to other schools next year, including the SciTech Academy, the Ellis School, and the Homewood YMCA Lighthouse program.  “Environmental restoration can happen at any age, and connecting young people with these activities is part of the ultimate vision for the Environmental Center at Frick Park,” said Marijke Hecht, Director of Education for the Parks Conservancy.  

The Urban EcoSteward program is part of the work of the Urban Ecology Collaborative of Pittsburgh. This is the local branch of an eight-city effort with a mission to cultivate healthy, safe and vibrant cities through collective learning and united action. In Pittsburgh, EcoStewards work under the supervision of staff from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the Frick Environmental Center, or the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation.

In July the City High EcoStewards got together in Schenley Park to make final presentations about the work they had completed throughout the semester.   See photos from the wrapup presentation here (thanks to John Altdorfer for the photos!).

Below are some videos from the participants.

Wednesdays in Mellon Square

Sam WebbI recently had the chance to spend a bit of time with park docent Sam Webb.  Sam leads Mellon Square’s lunchtime tours and a few of the Walks in the Woods sessions in Schenley Park that focus on trees.  History isn’t my focus at the Parks Conservancy, but it is something that I’ve always loved. 

While Mellon Square currently offers an audio tour about park history and design, Sam’s tour dives into greater detail, showcasing the park’s significance and the impact of the Mellon family.  I have always thought of Mellon Square as a green escape for downtown workers, but Sam showed me an additional purpose for some of the horticulture.  He mentioned that between the park edge and the interior, there are 25 feet of trees and landscaping that muffle traffic noise.  Sam is a soft-spoken man, but he is able to lead the Mellon Square tours without a microphone because of this feature.  The difference in noise level inside the Square and out on the street corner is really quite dramatic.

StepsWe took a moment and walked across the street to observe the Square from the front of Saks Fifth Avenue.   It was really remarkable to study the Square from the outside – seeing trees stretching up out of concrete and seeing people buzz past and through the park. 

One of the most interesting things I learned in my time with Sam was that the Square has similar lines to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.  Apparently, Wright submitted an initial design for Point Park that was a parking garage with a park on top.  It was rejected, but RK Mellon remembered the design and asked Mitchell & Ritchey to use it for Mellon Square. 

Sam’s tour also focuses on the 1950s design of the space, highlighting the surrounding buildings – like the Alcoa building that is made of aluminum.   If you’re interested in joining Sam, meet at the AFL-CIO sign at 12:15pm to join this free tour on the third Wednesday of each month.

Urban EcoSteward Spotlight

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy relies heavily on volunteers to accomplish our work in the parks, particularly our ecological restoration initiatives.  The Urban EcoSteward program gives a variety of people a chance to work and improve their own section of parkland. 

Frick Park – Kim, Dan, Jodi (18), Sage (16), Bobby (13), and Maggie Lincoln (8)

Dan, Kim, and Maggie LincolnAbout five minutes from the Frick Environmental Center is the Lincoln family’s “land” that they have stewarded since 2006.  The family of six has put an impressive amount of hours into their EcoSteward site, removing multiflora rose, honeysuckle, garlic mustard and vines and allowing native species to grow and flourish.   Two mulberry trees that were previously choked by vines have begun to thrive. 

The Jefferson Award-winning Lincoln family has worked hard to clear the perimeter of their site, exposing the foundation of a fountain that was filled in years ago.  The Lincolns average 100 hours per month in the springtime. 

While Kim often works on the site by herself, the Lincolns have found stewarding to be a great family activity.  “This has been a great activity for quality family time.  We can come together or separately, and each person can focus on what they like best.  It’s hard to find something that three teenagers want to do with their parents, but they really like doing the vine work,” said Kim.  “Plus the experience has taught our kids how to work hard, value nature, and take pride in helping others.”

During our site visit, eight year-old Maggie ran through the site jumping over fallen logs picking wild blackberries.  Her favorite part is the vine work, although she is an expert at pulling garlic mustard.  With four years under her belt, she has more experience than I do!  

Highland Park – Annie Weidman 

Annie WeidmanAnnie Weidman has been an Urban EcoSteward since the very beginning of the program.  When she started on her site near Highland Park’s Babbling Brook, 99% of the landscape was covered in garlic mustard. 

Annie has been removing invasives like Norway maple, buckthorn, and honeysuckle, allowing natives like the Solomon’s seal plant to grow.  Clearing trash and broken glass from the site is still necessary years later.  “I keep finding old versions of Iron City cans,” commented Annie.  

Annie works on the site with her friend Elizabeth Brown, and the two have found it’s a great way to catch up.  Annie said that there is a personal reward for volunteering: “We are doing our part to keep the parks relatively free of invasives and garbage, but we feel like it’s our own personal space. We love seeing all the improvements in our site.” 

Riverview Park – Moses Carper

Moses CarperMoses Carper has been volunteering in Riverview Park since 2001, originally as a docent and now as an Urban EcoSteward.  Moses works in the park year-round educating visiting groups and maintaining Riverview’s beautiful garden beds. 

Moses works with Bob Lacki of the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works to improve visitor experience in the parks by experimenting and planting new flowers.

Moses also brings young people to the park to volunteer in the flowerbeds and experience the trails.  He said, “Young kids often think of the park as a playground, so we move them out to the trails so that they can see that the park is all around.  It can be difficult to get them to understand stewardship.  It is all of our responsibility, and not just the City’s.” 

One of his favorite things about the EcoSteward program is that he is able to see the overall impact of the park and how there is now greater awareness in how to remove them.  “Before the docent and EcoSteward program, I knew that invasives were a problem, but I didn’t know how to deal with them.  You can’t promote diversity if you let them take over.”

Schenley Park – Mary Alice Drusbasky

Mary Alice DrusbaskyLocated just below the Bartlett Playground, the Bartlett Meadow in Schenley Park is a warm season grass and wildflower meadow.  Serving as a buffer to the nearby woods, the meadow creates a welcoming, healthy habitat for native wildlife, birds, and insects.  Mary Alice Drusbasky has stewarded this site since 2003, watching natives thrive as invasive plants are painstakingly removed. According to Mary Alice, working on the site is great exercise.

Mary Alice loves this natural site and has chronicled its development as a meadow.  As one of the original Urban EcoStewards, Mary Alice continues to remove the invasive goutweed, burdock, and garlic mustard from her site, allowing the ecology of the meadow to improve.  According to Mary Alice, “Grapevine is the easiest to remove – plus it makes a great wreath!”

Mary Alice added, “I like knowing that I’m giving something back to a park where I’ve appreciated such beauty.” 

The Parks Conservancy works in partnership with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the Frick Environmental Center, and the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation to supervise the stewards.  If you’re interested in becoming an Urban EcoSteward, visit

Meadow 2003

Mary Alice shared this photo of her stewarding her site back in 2003.

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