In 2014, a new pollinator habitat collaboration was initiated by a group of stakeholders that saw land use changes threatening pollinator health in the upper mid-west region. Acres of row crops were rapidly rising, conservation land was being lost, and with the expansion of row crops, agricultural chemical use was also expanding. From the initial success of that collaboration, The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund (BBHF) was formed.
While beekeepers and environmentalists have been aware of land use changes impacting bee health for a long time, these changes have intensified over the past few decades – and at the same time, honey bee and native bee health issues have come to the forefront of public awareness.
The above images represent how land use changes and increased agricultural chemicals can sometimes correlate. Pesticides are a complex issue. You can read more about pesticides and bee health here. Read the publication “Land-use change reduces habitat suitability for supporting managed honey bee colonies in the Northern Great Plains” here, and visit the USGS Pesticide National Synthesis Project’s interactive pesticide maps here.
At the same time that the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund was beginning to grow, a slew of talented scientists including Dr. Clint Otto (USGS), Dr. Autumn Smart, Dr. Judy Wu-Smart, Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, Dr. Marla Spivak and many others were working parallel to the project. This group of researchers have spent countless hours studying plant-pollinator interactions focused in the Dakotas and Minnesota - key areas for honey bees and other pollinators. They have mapped land use changes, analyzed pollen, counted bee species and visits to floral species, followed bees from the Dakotas to almond pollination, and worked in a wide network of bee researchers to implement technology like pollen metabarcoding to make their research more efficient. This body of collective work (funded in part by PAm), is an incredible example of the interdependency of bee research – and also of how that research can lead us to real solutions, spread awareness, and inform management choices that all impact the landscape.
An excerpt from the publication “Nutritional status of honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) workers across an agricultural land-use gradient”1 Matthew D. Smart, Clint R. V. Otto & Jonathan G. Lundgren, shows an example of how land use can impact the health of commercial honey bees during almond pollination. The “area of grass” above includes grasslands, pasture, conservation lands, fallow fields, wildflowers, and hay land, and are associated with providing more nutrition for bees than land managed row crops.
With this science-driven team working parallel to the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund project, testing it’s efficacy and validating it’s need, biologists got to work creating seed mixes and land management plans to help fill a critical need.
Just six years after the pilot program was launched, the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund has a team of two biologists, Pete Berthelsen and Elsa Gallagher, working hard to bring this solution to the landscape. At the time of this writing, 393 BBHF habitat projects have been planted, comprised of 2302 acres of Honey Bee Mix, and 2099 acres of Monarch Butterfly Mix.. The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund projects cost significantly less than traditional pollinator seed mixes, and thanks to complimenting research, we have evidence that they provide up to 8 x the pollinator value of similar plantings, including CRP seed mixes.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is an important program that incentivizes farmers to remove land from crop production, preserving wildlife habitat along with soil and water quality. However, with low pollinator and wildlife value, this program, while extremely important, isn’t enough to preserve the health of our pollinators in regions that are predominated by row crops. As CRP acreage drops and row crops increase, it is important that CRP pollinator plantings are providing increased value. The BBHF believes that we need “to make every acre the best it can be” when pollinator habitat is designed and established.
Thanks to collaborative efforts between the BBHF and Dr. Clint Otto from the USGS, preliminary research has shown the value of incorporating BBHF seed mixes into the current CRP CP-42 pollinator seed mixes. An ideal outcome would be adoption of this new mix by the USDA. If this were to be accomplished, one of the largest conservation projects in the country would be able to plant habitat that provides measurably better nutrition for honey bees, native bees, and Monarch butterflies. This initiative has clear value for beekeepers, land owners, and native pollinator species and when the research is completed the next – and significant - hurdle will be whether the USDA and CRP program adopt this new approach.
The methods behind creating better pollinator habitat are important. Pete Berthelsen, a dedicated conservationist in the Midwest, developed a pollinator value system that allows the BBHF team to create cost-effective seed mixes that bloom throughout the year, compete with weeds, provide superior pollinator nutrition and are cost-effective. Each planting includes two seed mixes – one designed for honey bees and one designed for Monarch butterflies and native pollinators. The establishment of each mix works in concert with the other – the honey bee mix establishes quickly, while the monarch butterfly mix grows more slowly but with lasting benefits. Even though each seed mixture is designed with specific species in mind, they both benefit a multitude of pollinator species (as seen in the graphs above comparing visits from native pollinators across habitat types), and do so with quick establishment and long-lasting results. This is not your typical pollinator garden or buffer strip – it is a system that works along-side agriculture and science to bring the most pollinator value to the landscape where it’s needed the most.
If you would like to learn more about the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund, please visit the website. There is much more that needs doing to support the health of our pollinators, there are many ways you can get involved with this program– from participating in the Seed A Legacy program and planting forage, to giving the gift of habitat in honor of a friend or loved one. Everyone can make a difference and support this innovative program.
references/ helpful links:
1) Matthew D. Smart, Clint R.V. Otto, Jonathan G. Lundgren. 2019. Nutritional Status of Honey Bee (Apismellifera L.) Workers Across an agricultural land-use gradient. Scientific Reports (nature research) 9:(1)DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-52485-y
The Bee Health Collective.
The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund.