To think, it might have been gravel.

Instead, wildflowers will soon bloom beneath the sleek solar panels in Ramsey, offering food to bees from 15 hives recently installed nearby. The colonies will produce honey by the jarful for Connexus Energy’s solar subscribers, with enough left over for local fundraisers.

Pairing native plants with solar arrays is a win-win, say bee researchers and renewable energy advocates. It provides food for pollinators suffering from rapidly shrinking habitats while offering a low-maintenance, vibrant alternative to the turf grass, gravel or wood chips often found beneath solar panels.

“It’s a perfect pairing,” said Marla Spivak, a renowned bee researcher at the University of Minnesota. “You have the solar energy efficiency and then you have pollinator habitat. What could be better?”

At Connexus Energy in Ramsey, two beekeepers will tend their hives in the company’s solar panel field, providing 600 jars of honey to Connexus and selling the rest. The partnership may be the first of its kind in the country, said Samantha Neral, a Connexus Energy spokeswoman.

It’s part of a broader push to grow pollinator-friendly flowers and grasses near solar arrays. Minnesota passed the country’s first statewide standards for “pollinator friendly solar” in 2016, and more than 2,300 acres of these plants took root near solar panels last year, according to Fresh Energy, a clean energy nonprofit in St. Paul.

Maryland recently passed standards modeled on Minnesota’s, and pollinator-friendly solar projects are now being pitched or built in states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Vermont, said Rob Davis of Fresh Energy, who helped facilitate the Connexus-beekeeper pairing.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of excitement around this model,” Davis said. “It’s definitely a growing trend.”

Planting flowers and native grasses underneath panels rather than turf grass or gravel has a minimal financial effect on utility projects but could yield big dividends for pollinators including bees and butterflies, Davis said.

Foraging

Travis and Chiara Bolton of St. Paul are supplying Connexus Energy with bright blue hives filled with their Minnesota-hardy colonies. For beekeepers like the Boltons, land suitable for bees is getting harder to come by.

“Healthy food for bees always seems to be dwindling,” Travis Bolton said. “That’s why this is an ideal partnership.”

The Boltons said several other companies interested in their apiaries have already contacted them about solar power projects.

Come fall, Connexus Energy’s nearly 130 solar subscribers across the north metro will reap one of the rewards: jars of gooey gold.

In Ramsey, the bees will have their pick from 10 native grasses and 36 wildflower species near the solar panels — not that they’ll stick to the 1.2-acre parcel.

Bees often forage over 2 miles from their colonies to find food, Spivak said.

“The more solar arrays with pollinator habitat around them, the bigger the benefit for all our bees,” she said. “It’s not the full solution, but it’s a great start.”