Protecting Pollinators – What’s The Latest Buzz?

With populations of monarch butterflies, honeybees, native bees, and other pollinating insects declining across the United States, public institutions and citizen groups have sprung to action with new initiatives to save the pollinators. Locally, there are a number of new projects underway in Washington County and across Minnesota.

Last year, the University of Minnesota opened a new Bee and Pollinator Research Lab on the St Paul campus and created the Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, for the public, at the University of MN Landscape Arboretum. At the Bee Lab, Dr. Marla Spivak conducts research on honeybees and Dr. Dan Cariveau studies the ecology and habitat needs of native bees. The lab also houses the Bee Squad, which provides classes and training for beekeepers (www.beelab.umn.edu).

A bumblebee with full pollen sacs collects nectar from a sedum flower.

Honeybee populations have plummeted over the past 50 years due to a variety of factors, including loss of habitat, diseases, and the proliferation of neonicotinoids, a class of persistent, systemic insecticides used to pretreat crops and garden store plants. Habitat loss and insecticide use have also impacted native bees and butterflies. There are 250 native bee species in Minnesota and 140 species of butterflies. Pollinators have co-evolved with native plants over thousands of years and rely on these plants for both food and shelter, but we are losing critical habitat to farming and development in many places.

On March 21, 2017, the federal government officially listed one of Minnesota’s native bees – the rusty patched bumble bee – as endangered. Rusty patched bumble bees are now found only in scattered locations across the U.S., covering 0.1% of their historical range. Some of the remaining populations can be found in the Twin Cities metro area, including the White Bear Lake/Mahtomedi area, Lake Elmo and portions of Oakdale/ Maplewood, Afton and other St. Croix River communities south of Hwy 94, and in Newport/St. Paul Park. In addition to habitat loss and insecticides, rusty patched bumble bees are also susceptible to diseases from commercial bumblebees.

In order to protect human food production and support food webs and native plant populations within the natural ecosystem, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) has developed a two-year pollinator initiative. The goal is to integrate pollinator protections into existing programs to improve soil and water resources. Often, this is as simple as adjusting the planting mix for a buffer or erosion control project to include a higher diversity of native wildflowers.

Pollinator habitat can be improved by incorporating more native flowers (forbs) into prairie and habitat plantings.

BWSR works in partnership with local government and private landowners, and provides much of the funding for Watershed District and Conservation District projects in Washington County. Currently, BWSR is working with the Washington Conservation District to map existing pollinator habitat in Washington County, as well as identify “medium” quality habitat that could be enhanced to better support pollinators.

There are also several smaller grant programs specific to Washington County that aim to help landowners create better habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, while also protecting local water resources. One grant available through the Washington Conservation District (WCD) provides funding to convert agricultural fields or large areas of turf (greater than 1 acre) to prairie. Additional programs are designed to help people living near the St. Croix River to reduce runoff pollution through practices such as bluff restoration, erosion control, raingardens, sediment basins, ravine repair, and grassed waterways. Farmers with existing conservation practices on their land can also work with the WCD to enhance those practices to capture more soluble phosphorus or provide better habitat for pollinators. Learn more at 651-330-8220 or www.mnwcd.org.

In addition, local farmers and producers can become Bee Better Certified™ through a new program developed by the Xerces Society.  The Bee Better program allows farmers and food companies to be certified through a science-based, third-party certification program. The production standards were developed from a thorough review of scientific literature and rigorous vetting by a panel of experts and require producers to reduce pesticide risk and restore portions of their land as pollinator habitat. Bee Better Certified products feature a unique packaging seal so that consumers can shop with confidence, knowing that their purchases benefit pollinators and farmers (www.beebettercertified.org).

If you want to get to support the bees and butterflies in your community, check out resources and upcoming events through the Pollinator Friendly Alliance (www.pollinatorfriendly.org). This October, the Pollinator Friendly Alliance will be seeding prairie at Stillwater’s new Pollinator Park, near the corner of Laurel and Owens Streets. The Alliance will also be at the Warner Nature Center Fall Color Blast on Sunday, Oct. 1, 12-5pm. You can also find resources to plant a pollinator-friendly garden of your own at www.BlueThumb.org.

Get started on a pollinator-friendly native planting of your own at www.BlueThumb.org.