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Keys to saving our endangered bees may be just lying along the roadside

We’re talking about rethinking the design and use of highway corridors and utility rights-of-way, of corporate campuses and croplands, of public lands and private lawns. 

We’ve spent many decades converting pollinators’ prime foraging territory into cropland, residential lawns and pavement. How do we undo that?
REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

In 1938, the entomologist Edith Patch predicted that by the beginning of this century, the federal government would find it necessary to protect bees and other pollinating insects by planting “insect gardens” across the country, and that “entomologists will be as much or more concerned with the conservation and preservation of beneficial insect life as they are now with the destruction of injurious insects.”

—From a presentation by Eric Mӓder of the Xerces Society last Thursday at Hamline University, St. Paul.

Last week I attended a highly interesting panel discussion on what can be done to create healthy habitat for Minnesota’s imperiled pollinators, and I came away with an unexpected but most welcome reaction, bordering on optimism.

It turns out lots of things can be done, are already being done, and could readily be scaled up to much wider impact to help out not only the commercially managed honeybees but wild bees, butterflies and other pollinators as well.

We aren’t talking here about planting a small patch of flowers  by your backyard deck or in your boulevard strip.

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We’re talking about rethinking the design and use of highway corridors and utility rights-of-way, of corporate campuses and croplands, of all manner of public lands and private lawns. All of these can be modified to restore healthy pollinator habitat, while returning significant human benefits as well.

You often hear habitat loss mentioned in passing as one among three important drivers of the “colony collapse disorder” that continues to afflict the nation’s populations of managed honeybees. But it nearly always gets far less attention than the other two:

  • Neonicotinoid insecticides, whose rapidly expanding use in U.S. agriculture since the middle of the last decade has coincided with the emergence of CCD and a mortality curve that continues to rise.
  • Increasing virulence of certain parasites, including the Varroa mite and some fungal infections.

Pesticides as low-hanging fruit

Of these three factors, the “neonics” have gotten the most attention in the ongoing public discussion of the honeybees’ plight because their contribution to the problem carries a simple (though not easy) solution: ban them, as some European countries have done, and as Minnesota may try to do.

Habitat-based solutions get the least focus because they respond to a problem that has been building for a much longer time, and seems an almost inevitable consequence of modern life:

We’ve spent many decades  converting pollinators’ prime foraging territory into cropland, residential lawns and pavement. How do we undo that?

This question was at the heart of “Creating Habitat for Minnesota’s Pollinators,” sponsored by Environmental Initiative to stimulate a broader discussion and perhaps even some new cooperative efforts to reconstruct healthy habitat and begin reversing the decimation of bees and other pollinators.

(Actually, decimation is perhaps too mild a word, deriving as it does from the practice in Roman legions of slaughtering 10 percent of personnel to punish certain offenses; it would take a better grasp on Latin than mine to come up with an appropriate word for honeybee losses that now average 30 to 35 percent per year each winter. And honeybees are doing well compared to certain wild bees, or to the monarch butterfly.)

Bees need clean food

The leadoff speaker for Thursday’s program was Marla Spivak, director of the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, whose work continues to focus on the parasite and disease problems of bees.

But she said that if she could speak for the bees on the single most important thing we could do for them, it would be not to ban neonics but to provide clean food in natural form — “not just habitat but clean, uncontaminated habitat.”

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“If I ruled the world, and I was asked whether we should get rid of pesticides, I guess I’d say, OK, ditch the pesticides,” she said. “But that’s not reality. We need to try for a world with both pesticides and pollinators.”

Other realities of industrial agriculture — with its vast acreage of cropland that holds little food for bees, wrecks their ground nests and poisons them besides — might be easier to change:

Planting borders and untillable acreage in flowering, low-maintenance, native perennials would not only feed the bees but promote healthier populations of game birds, and if milkweed was in the mix the monarchs would get a boost, too. Nitrogen-fixing cover crops like clover, if rotated into the schedule, would improve the soil’s health along with the bees’.

Turning to residential lands and lawns, Spivak said “it’s starting to scare me” how many urban and suburban beekeepers are setting up hives out of public-spirited motives, but without enough supporting forage territory nearby.

“Bee lawns” are a possible answer, she said, and one that will be studied more intensively in her lab next year. And such adaptations don’t require change on the scale of, say, planting knee- or hip-high prairie grasses.

Substituting certain types of fescue for the ubiquitous Kentucky bluegrass would make a large and immediate difference. So would giving some of the grassy space to low-growing, tough ground covers like Dutch clover and even – gasp – creeping Charlie. (And leave the dandelions alone, while you’re at it.)

Mowing needs could be reduced, too, especially if mower blades are set at their maximum height. And if manufacturers follow through on discussions of building or adapting equipment to permit a four-inch mowing height, all of these benefits would jump by a quantum level.

Ag benefits of bee-friendly practices

Eric Mӓder of the Xerces Society, which devotes itself to the interests of insects and other invertebrates — and ranks, he said wryly, as the world’s “oldest conservation organization nobody has ever heard of” — discussed research showing that wildflower borders and similarly pollinator-friendly plantings had increased yields in crops from blueberries to canola.

In the case of blueberries, one Michigan study showed a increased return of 500 pounds per acre at harvest, worth $800.

Xerces also works to promote restoration of good pollinator habit on nonagricultural lands, and has racked up 190,000 acres nationwide in its programs since 2008.

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Joan MacLeod, representing Damon Farber Associates, said her landscape architecture firm no longer encounters the resistance it once did when it proposes less lawn and more alternatives for corporate campuses.

Sometimes the client is specifically concerned with creating or restoring healthy habitat. Sometimes the motivation is that non-lawn plantings, while initially more expensive that grass, are far cheaper in the long run to maintain:

“I have never had a client say, when we’ve developed a plan that reduces the amount of lawn, that they want us to put more grass back in.”

But the most interesting possibilities, hands-down, that I heard about from Mӓder and others on Thursday concern the essentially unutilized, permanently reserved acreage that lies in broad bands along our highways.

Let us consider, first, Spivak’s rule of thumb that while a bee colony might require an acre of good foraging ground, that acre could occur anywhere within the 8,000 acres that fall within a typical roaming radius from the hive.

Then let us consider what those corridors might look like to motorists, in addition to bees and butterflies, if their desert-like expanses of high-maintenance, low-beauty grassy cover were made to bloom.

Corridors of refuge

State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul and a strong advocate for pollinator protections, asked the audience to “remember that, in this country we relegate wildlife to refuges.”

“And Minnesota is using Legacy money to add to its scientific and natural areas, wildlife management areas, park lands and so on,” he said. “But it’s a small part of the landscape.”

Twenty-eight percent of Minnesota’s land is being used for crop production, he said — some 19.4 million acres — and, yes, it’s important to promote good pollinator habitat at the edges of those fields.

Meanwhile, he said, the Department of Natural Resources estimates that 500,000 acres of land lies along the state’s roadways. Then there are the cleared corridors beneath powerlines and along railroad tracks, for which nobody seemed to have acreage estimates, although Craig Poorker of Great River Energy thought there might be 50,000 acres just beneath his company’s lines.

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Poorker  seemed sympathetic to the idea of creating forage  there, although he pointed out that utilities typically don’t own the land beneath their lines, only an easement allowing for construction and maintenance, and not all landowners would get on board.

Tina Markeson, a roadside vegetation management unit supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), said the department has begun to embrace some of the new thinking,  and has plans to do more.

But MnDOT has to work within certain limitations, from a salt-rich roadside environment to budget constraints, along with safety concerns that will always require some relatively close mowing along the shoulder: “You don’t really want big bluestem right next to the road.”

And, she said, the department’s authority ends with state roads; a lot of those half-million acres are under the control of counties and townships. As for the railroads, who weren’t represented on the panel but are not always known for a collaborative approach on such matters, her advice to progressive thinkers in the room was, “Good luck.”

The pesticide industry wasn’t represented on the panels either, but a Syngenta lobbyist named Dave Flakne rose at the end of all the Q&A to offer a few comments on banning the neonicotinoids produced by his company and others.

I give him the last word here not only because there’s undeniable if unfortunate truth in what he said, but also because it makes the importance of efforts on habitat restoration even more compelling. Excerpts from his comments:

“It’s not as simple as just banning products. There are lots of trade-offs. Remember that  neonicotinoids were encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of their human health aspects. They’re better for applicators than organophosphates.

“If you ban something, the growers will use something else, and most of the alternative products also have bee toxicity. Nor is this problem restricted to agriculture; most of the bee toxicity incidents with direct links to an insecticide have been in urban areas, not farm areas.”