Proposals would explore causes, remedies for die-off of crop pollinators
Dan Whitney has been a beekeeper for nearly 20 years. And while the honey that his bees make near Ottertail is sweet, the steep mortality of bees in recent years has made for a bitter business experience.
On Tuesday Whitney testified before a legislator/citizen panel at the Capitol, urging research on ways to improve habitats in hopes of reversing a statewide and nationwide trend of precipitous declines in the bee population. In 1992, some 180,000 colonies in the state produced 22 million pounds of honey, worth $44 million in today’s prices. Last year, 130,000 colonies produced 8.7 million pounds, worth $17 million.
“We’ve lost $27 million in production in 20 years,” said Whitney, who is the vice president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association. “We’re just barely getting by.”
The shrinking bee population is also worrisome to a range of other businesses, including florists as well as farmers who grow apples.
The problem has quickly risen in visibility for state lawmakers. Last session, the Legislature passed and Gov. Mark Dayton signed a pollinator habitat bill that entomologists, beekeepers and food company executives heralded as a significant step among state legislatures nationwide in addressing the bee problem. The legislation uses money from the state Department of Agriculture’s pesticide regulatory fund to restore pollinator habitats.
Now the plight of bees is being taken up by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The panel, which recommends environmental projects to the Legislature to be paid for by Minnesota Lottery proceeds, has heard several bee-related funding requests during meetings this month. The projects, which flow from the 2013 legislation, seek to identify ways that state agencies should do the plantings envisioned in the legislation.
LCCMR Co-Chair Jean Wagenius, who chairs the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, said the interest in bees among lawmakers and the media has translated into significant requests from the likes of the University of Minnesota, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The interest in bees, she said, is raising questions that need answers derived from science.
“I think the honeybee collapse is the poster child,” Wagenius said. “But honeybees are only one population of pollinators. There are moths and butterflies. We know very little about native pollinators. In fact that was the surprise to the Legislature and I think that’s the surprise to this committee: how little we know about the things that have to pollinate the food we eat.”
Proposals to study pollinators
More than $3.5 million in LCCMR requests this year are specifically related to pollinators. They’re part of a diverse array of LCCMR proposals ranging from the next generation of septic tank systems to discovering ways to derive renewable energy from beet waste.
In all, the LCCMR received 192 proposals that totaled approximately $111.5 million. The LCCMR, which will have a total of $29.6 million at its disposal from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, is scheduled to make its funding recommendations to the 2014 Legislature at its meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Of the pollinator proposals, the largest is a $1.7 million request from University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak. Spivak testified on Tuesday in front of the LCCMR that there’s significant need for another faculty position and post-doctoral researcher to collect data about bees and to document new plants that can help sustain bee populations. Other aspects of her funding request involve increasing the use of pollen and nectar-producing flowers that benefits bees. The endeavor, she said, will benefit more than the bees.
“Our goal is to increase more natural ecosystems,” Spivak said. “If we can increase flowering habitats, that will provide nutritional support for our pollinators, our bees in particular, and nesting habitat. Because when you have pollinator habitat, it’s also good bird and wildlife habitat.”
Despite the success of pollinator legislation this year at the Capitol, bee proposals met with resistance in an earlier round of LCCMR funding. In 2011 the panel recommended funding to investigate the role that agricultural insecticides and residential pest control were playing in the decline of bee populations. At the Legislature, that proposal was stripped from the LCCMR bill.
Role of insecticides
This year, a similar proposal for $327,000 is being proposed by University of Minnesota entomologist Vera Krischik. Krischik presented her request, entitled “Protecting Bees by Understanding Systemic Insecticides,” to the LCCMR on Oct. 3.
Her research concerns so-called “neonicotinyl” insecticides, which can get into and stay in the plant and are toxic to the bees.
Testifying alongside Krischik was Jeff Anderson, a commercial beekeeper from Todd County.
He said he had 68 percent mortality last year in his bee operation. Twenty years ago, he would have expected 80 pounds from his colonies. In the last couple years, Anderson said he’s down to 35 pounds on average.
“We’re fairly well convinced that the suppression of the colony health is directly tied to the use of these neonicotinoids,” Anderson said.
Krischik said her LCCMR proposal will obtain a better data set to show how pervasive this class of insecticides is, and how it affects bees.
The LCCMR proposals deal with both harm caused to bees by exposure to toxic chemicals and the need to improve bee habitat. Spivak said she doesn’t know if the origin of the decline in bee populations is traced to chemicals, habitat or disease. But she said all three problems exacerbate each other.
“There’s no one root problem,” Spivak said. “The problem is all of the insecticides and the lack of habitat and their own diseases. It all mixes.”