(Beyond Pesticides, March 4, 2014) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently committed to providing financial assistance to farmers and ranchers in five Midwestern states to improve and create bee-friendly habitat. This project comes as American beekeepers have continued to experience rapid colony declines with losses over the winter over 30 percent per year. The creation of pollinator-friendly habitat is an important step to slowing pollinator losses, however this project does not challenge the expansion of agriculture into current pollinator habitat, the use of systemic pesticides that are linked to pollinator decline, or the widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops with elevated use of herbicides that kill habitat.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide $3 million in technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to create and improve bee friendly habitat in five Midwestern states. Ranchers can qualify for assistance to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants that bees forage. NRCS will also assist ranchers in building fences, installing water tanks and other changes to better move cattle between pastures so as not to wear down vegetation. Farmers can also qualify for funds to plant cover crops, and bee friendly forage in boarders and edges of fields. Beyond creating honeybee habitat, these programs could help improve soil health and create habitat for other pollinators.
The five Midwestern states —Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin— were chosen because 65 percent of commercially managed beekeepers use these states as resting grounds from June to September. According to the NRCS, with limited funds this project would allow for the greatest payoff for the investment.
NRCS hopes this program will create more bee-friendly habitat that will provide a more nutritious food source that in turn leads to healthier bees. There has been growing concern over current bee-feeding practice where keepers supplement bee diets with corn syrup over the winter. Some scientists argue that this nutrition deficit diet leads to honey bees being more susceptible to disease. This program will allow bees to gather nectar and pollen over the summer before they are shipped around the country and used for their pollinating service which could lead to healthier bees going into the winter season.
Though this program will hopefully help create more bee-friendly habitat, the benefits of this project may be offset by growing levels of commodity crops in the Midwest. High corn prices, among other factors, have led to rapid expansion of farmland ””more than 25 million new acres in the U.S. since 2007”” and has eaten away grasslands and conservation reserves that supplied habitat for pollinators like the Monarch butterfly.
Tim Tucker, the president of the American Beekeeping Federation, was quoted in a New York Times article saying, “There used to be a lot of small farms in our area that had clover and a variety of crops, whereas in the last 20 years it’s really been corn, soybean and cotton and a little bit of canola, those crops don’t provide a lot of good nectar and pollen for bees.”
The Bigger Problem: Pesticides
This project also avoids taking on the largest factor affecting bee health, pesticides. A growing body of independent science links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids to bee declines, both alone and in combination with other factors like disease and malnutrition. Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in disorientation, paralysis and death. Neonicotinods can also be persistent in the environment, and when used as seed treatments, translocate to residues in pollen and nectar of treated plants.
Recent studies have found that “near infinitesimal” exposures to neonicotinoids causes a reduction in the amount of pollen bumblebees are able to collect for their colony. Researchers found that the effects of neonicotinoid intoxication persist for a least a month after exposure, underscoring the long-term damage these chemicals can cause to bee colonies.
Neonicotinoids are also acutely toxic to pollinators. Oregon officials determined that the neonicotinoid dinotefuran was the cause of two massive bee kills in the state last year. In a letter submitted last week, groups asked that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) not allow greater use of this pesticide.
Continue the conversation at Beyond Pesticides’ 32nd National Pesticide Forum, Advancing Sustainable Communities: People, Pollinators, and Practices, in Portland, Oregon, April 11-12. The Forum will focus on improving farmworker protections along with solutions to the decline of pollinators and other beneficial organisms, strengthening organic agriculture, and creating healthy buildings, schools and homes. Space is limited so register now.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.