Habitat Loss Increasing, Needs Help

(The following is brought to us by CATCH THE BUZZ (Kim Flottum) Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping, published by A.I. Root Company.) 

Habitat For Honey Bees

See also: http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/02/opinion/flottum-bees-death/index.html?iref=allsearch

The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC  20250

RE:  Request for Actions to Increase Habitat for Honey Bees, Wildlife and Other Pollinators

Dear Mr. Secretary:

The undersigned organizations recognize the urgent need to develop substantial habitat and forage for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators in the United States.  We encourage you to strengthen USDA’s commitment to grassland habitat and forage for honey bees and other pollinators through conservation policies and programs.

It is in the economic interest of U.S. agricultural producers and the American public to ensure a healthy, sustainable population of honey bees and native pollinators.  Pollinators are essential to the production of an estimated one-third of the human diet and to the reproduction of at least 80 percent of flowering plants.  Insect-pollinated agricultural commodities result in significant income for agricultural producers and account for $20 billion in annual U.S. agricultural production.  Additional background information is attached. 

Critical grassland and wetland habitat loss across the country, particularly in the Northern Great Plains, has presented a major challenge to honey bee health and colony numbers in recent years, posing a substantial threat to the pollination of our food supply.  Honey bees, the pollinating “work horse” of modern agriculture, require a rich supply of nectar and pollen from blooming trees, shrubs, and plants in order to thrive.  Changes in farming practices, wide scale agricultural herbicide use, urban sprawl, aggressive weed control measures, and altered land management policies have each significantly reduced the amount of sustainable habitat available for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators.

We recommend and support USDA actions to focus on the following priorities:

  • Encourage maximum participation in grassland and wetland conservation programs, like the Conservation Reserve (CRP) and Wetland Reserve Programs (WRP), continuing to work toward acreage goals outlined in the Farm Bill. 
  • Establish and maintain the maximum amount of habitat possible with increased focus on the Northern Great Plains.  Protecting existing pollinator habitat and encouraging the establishment of new habitat should be a priority in all conservation programs and allowable management practices, including haying, grazing, and weed control. 
  • Establish affordable pollinator and wildlife-friendly seed mixes, including legumes which have been widely used in agriculture, at the larger scale needed for honey bees, to encourage wider use of such mixes on conservation lands and for cover crops.  
  • Offer cost-share assistance and incentives through EQIP and other programs to encourage larger scale, pollinator and wildlife-friendly plantings. 
  • Strengthen policies and programs to allow and encourage access for the placement of bee hives on CRP land, other agriculture conservation lands, and federal lands.

In summary, a diverse group of agricultural and wildlife interests remain concerned about significant habitat loss and its impact to our nation’s food security and wildlife populations.  We stand ready to work with USDA to achieve increased habitat and forage for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators.

American Beekeeping Federation
American Farm Bureau Federation
American Farmland Trust
American Honey Producers Association
Blue Diamond Almond Growers
California Specialty Crops Council
California State Beekeepers Association
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
National Association of Conservation Districts
National Cotton Council
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
National Farmers Union
North Dakota Beekeepers Association
Partners for Sustainable Pollination
Pheasants Forever
Pollinator Partnership
Project Apis Mellifera
Quail Forever
United Fresh Produce Association
U.S. Apple Association

Habitat for Honey Bees and Other Pollinators 

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has provided millions of acres of vital habitat for honey bees since the late 1980s and has, in many instances, effectively buffered honey bees from the effects of other land use changes that have depleted traditional habitat.  Historically, the largest concentration of CRP has been located in the upper Midwest and Northern Plains where perhaps as many as 50% of the nation’s honey bee colonies spend the summer.  Sadly, this region has seen the most dramatic reductions in CRP acreage over recent years due to program acreage reductions, changes to the EBI ranking process and rising commodity prices that have far outpaced CRP payments.  Honey bees are transported to the Midwest following winter and spring pollination deployment to the south or coastal areas where pollination services are needed by f armers.  Habitat and forage needed to support large numbers of hives for a long period of time do not exist in these regions.   

Traditionally, CRP lands, with their abundant acres of legume-rich forage, have offered the hives a safe haven from the pressures of modern agriculture and have provided larger-scale, natural sources of pollen essential to healthy brood rearing needed to sustain colonies throughout the year.  This end of season stopover allows the bees to be revitalized after rigorous pollination activities and be readied to again provide vital pollination when and where they are needed.

Recently, changes to conservation policies have diminished the forage value of conservation lands for honey bees.  In addition, the forage capacity of CRP lands has deteriorated as, over time, nectar and pollen rich plants succumb to grass, weeds, and herbicides intended to control weeds.  In addition, millions of acres of CRP lands have been converted back to farmland in recent years.  Millions more acres are being reenrolled in the program, in many cases without provisions or incentives to reestablish beneficial plants needed for honeybees.  Furthermore, efforts to boost pollinator habitat through conservation programs have not kept pace with losses.

It is imperative that the benefits of grassland conservation as forage for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators be recognized in future planning and targeting of CRP and other conservation programs.  Since its inception, CRP has been relied upon and predictable as a significant resource for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators.  Provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill mandated that the needs of both native and managed pollinators (honey bees) be considered for all conservation programs.  This is fitting, since conservation lands, such as CRP acreage, provide prime habitat for pollinators.  

Opportunities exist to enhance pollinator forage on CRP lands.  For example—  

  • An affordable planting mix option should be developed and offered that includes common alfalfa and sweet clover varieties that were long utilized affordably in prior conservation programs.  These plants are excellent sources of nectar and pollen for honey bees and other pollinators.  While these plants are not native, they are widely used in agriculture and wildlife management, as they are affordable legumes that provide clear benefits to soil, water, and wildlife.  Sadly, to date programs designed to benefit pollinators have been too focused on rare and expensive native plants and only small tracts of land.
  • Producers should be encouraged to plant beneficial mixes for pollinators and wildlife on CRP lands and cover crops.  Current CRP contract holders, when reenrolling land, should be encouraged to replant with new seed mixes to upgrade acreage that is now largely devoid of original intended plants, or is harboring invasive weeds.  Incentives should be offered to current CRP contract holders with contracts which are not due to expire, to upgrade their plantings to benefit pollinators.  Appropriate seed mixes and management practices for cover crops can also provide forage for honey bees and other pollinators. 

Without the benefit of the past programs and existing CRP acres in key areas, like the Northern Great Plains, it is certain that U.S. honey bee declines would be even worse.  This poses a major threat to our nation’s agricultural producers and food security.  Time is of the essence as recent research has demonstrated a strong relationship between healthy, thriving honey bee colonies and habitat quality and availability – the prime example being in the leading honey production State of North Dakota where hive numbers have doubled since the CRP program went into place.  It is clear, that investing in habitat strategies through conservation will improve the health and abundance of pollinators and wildlife.