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Come Saturday, the historic Liberia House grounds on Portner Avenue in Manassas should be buzzing with locals of all ages.

And don’t be startled if you see folks around town dressed up as bumblebees, butterflies or other insects that serve as pollinators for the area’s vegetation. They’ll be there for the first Manassas Bee Festival.

The festival is a culmination of a years-long passion project for City Councilwoman Theresa Coates Ellis. It started about four years ago, when Coates Ellis’ daughter got her and her husband, George, a beehive for Christmas. The two wanted the bees to thrive, so they became more and more interested in how they function and why they’re so ecologically important.

By the time the couple joined the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association, they were hooked, and Coates Ellis discovered that the beekeeping community in the area was bigger than she realized.

The decline of pollinator populations is a serious issue for the world’s crops.

“More than 90 species of U.S. specialty crops require pollination, and various animals, including bees, butterflies, moths, bats, and birds are a critical part of the pollinator-plant ecosystem,” according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture article by Sonny Ramasway, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“During the past 30-plus years, our nation’s pollinator populations have suffered serious losses due to invasive pests and diseases, such as mites and viral and fungal pathogens, exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, loss of habitat, loss of species and genetic diversity, and changing climate,” Ramasway wrote.

Coates Ellis said she isn’t the most expert beekeeper herself – she leaves the really difficult stuff to her husband. But she wanted the city to do a small part in helping native pollinators to thrive.

Starting last year, she began pushing to have the city designated as an affiliate of Bee City USA, a program created by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Earlier this year, Manassas was accepted.

As a Bee City designee, Manassas had to commit to cutting back on pesticides, work to enhance pollinator habitat with native plants and host awareness events like Saturday’s festival, which will be held by the city’s beautification committee. A new city ordinance also allows for residents to have beehives on their property with certain limitations.

“The main focus is pollinators, specifically native pollinators and saving our pollinators because they are in decline and they are very important to a growing food source,” Coates Ellis said. “That’s the basic goal, is to bring more awareness to the situation, to try to have people be more responsible with best practice for native planting as well and setting up a healthy environment for the pollinators.”

On Saturday morning, Liberia House will be the site of educational exhibits, a family spelling “bee” challenge, displays of native plants and beehive boxes painted by local residents, as well as beer, mead and food. Butterfly and small mammal exhibits will be on site, and a ribbon cutting for the native gardens at the Liberia House will be held at noon.

Beekeepers from the George Mason University Honey Bee Initiative – which works with governments, nonprofits and businesses to support bee populations – will also be on site to speak about the importance of pollinators.

“We’re trying to make it fun. If you get the kids there, you’ll get the parents there and they’ll learn more about what the message is,” Coates Ellis said. “That’s to plant native, try to have limited chemicals on your lawn and understand certain native plants that look like weeds that are actually beneficial.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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