Monday, December 12, 2016

New Effort to Help Bees

The Xerces Society, a non-profit that specializes in the conservation of invertebrates, announced recently that it is a partner with General Mills in a program to reestablish healthy habitat for pollinators on American farms.  The certification program will allow farmers to tout their bee friendly operations upon completing the program.  General Mills and the Department of Agriculture have agreed to fund the $4million initiative.  The program will provide technical assistance to farmers who plant and protect flowering field edges and hedgerows.  Modern industrialized agriculture has all but eliminated these natural oasis from producing farmland.  Two-thirds of America's land is privately owned, so it is essential that owners play a prominent role in pollinator protection.  Even more so when their contribution to the agricultural bottom line is considered; pollinators contribute an estimated $25 billion in agricultural production annually.  The partnership has an initial goal of planting 100,000 acres of pollinator habitat.  It will provide teams of biologists from Xerces and the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in the various regions it serves to evaluate habitat, consult on restoration and compatible farm practices.

This is important work.  Last year the nation lost about a third of its honeybee population which alone contribute $15 annually in pollination services for flowering crops.  Mass die offs of honeybee and wild bee populations are under investigation by science.  Most informed observers think that the overuse and abuse of pesticides in commercial agriculture is to blame.  Chronic use of these substances for over a century has weakened and degraded bee health to the point they can no longer resist natural diseases and pests.  In turn, their genetic code has been altered from the wild state making them less robust.  Restoration of natural, healthy habitat is an effective means of assisting bee population to flourish.  The Current Occupant established a task force in 2014 that committed to restoring 7 million acres of habitat. With restoration comes unwanted species of course.  Part of the Xerces-USDA project will be to identify plants that do not attract "pests" and accordingly advise farmers engaged in restoration projects.  Insects are often genetically adapted to feed on a limited number of plant species.  Tolerance of natural processes that may inflict some commercial losses but increase pollinator health will also assist sustainability.  Restoration is not an inexpensive effort.  Dense flowering areas with a variety of wild plants can cost $1000 to $2000 an acre. Preparing the soil and planting the right plants and shrubs in the right place is labor intensive which surprises modern farmers: you just don't hook up the disc and blaze down the ruler strait rows in your air-conditioned tractor.

Xerces has planted about 400,000 acres of habitat since its restoration efforts began in 2008.  It will measure success of the program based on the total area of land restored.  The biologists will also, at some point, walk the fields and count the variety and number of bees.  A good mix in nature, as always, is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem.