Look who’s hoping to earn a Bee-plus
Nancy Jo Tubbs

July should be a good month for bees in Minnesota. Next week two new laws go into effect that may help put the buzz back into populations of honeybees and bumblebees here.

This spring our state was the first to enact two bee-friendly laws. One prohibits labeling plants for sale as good for bees, ants, butterflies, bats and other pollinators if plants have been exposed to levels of pesticides that are detectable and lethal to those species. Think bee balm, oregano, coneflowers, yarrow and lavender as just a few that may sport bee-friendly labels.

The second bill authorizes the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to compensate bee owners under certain circumstances if their pollinators are killed by an insecticide. The law applies if the pesticide applicator followed all restrictions and instructions on the product label or if the pesticide applicator cannot be identified. Reparations will come out of the state Pesticide Regulatory Account, funded by fees and penalties paid in by those who manufacture, distribute and apply pesticides.

Bee owners could be compensated up to $20,000 a year from the account, or if those applying a pesticide are found to be negligent, they would be liable for the market value of the loss to the beekeeper.

Since 2006, scientists have been tracking a precipitous decline in numbers of honeybees from what they call Colony Collapse Disorder. Beekeepers have been losing an estimated 30 percent of their honeybee colonies a year, when the normal die-off over winter was previously 10 to 15 percent. In 2013, the good news reported a roughly 23-percent loss.

Should we care? Only if we enjoy the occasional glass of milk. Alfalfa hay fed to dairy cattle requires pollination. If you like avocado, thank a bat. Chocolate? Send kudos to midges and stingless bees. Papayas? Say hurrah for moths, birds and bees. Like honey? Hum praise to a honeybee. Wikipedia lists hundreds of familiar food plants, trees and herbs that rely on pollinators.

In the U.S. alone, pollination by honeybees is needed by more than 130 fruits, nuts and vegetables, which contribute about $15 billion in agricultural production to our economy. Plus, they are needed for the reproduction of about 90 percent of flowering plants. It’s not good news that this country’s honeybee population is less than half its number in 1945.

“Honey bees and some other species of bees (such as bumblebees) are at a tipping point,” Marla Spivak, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus told MinnPost. “And if beekeepers cannot supply sufficient bees, crop yields will decrease and food prices will go up. “

Five Midwestern states, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, will also be the beneficiaries of nearly $3 million in technical and financial support for pollinator health from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). An estimated 65 percent of commercially-handled honeybees in the U.S. live in these states and forage from June to September when they are making food for the hive in winter months.

Research is going on in four U.S. laboratories that focus on bee nutrition, genetics, and the effects of pathogens, parasites and pesticides on bee populations.

Gardeners are educating themselves in order to help local bee and other pollinator populations including hummingbirds, moths, beetles and butterflies. The Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit based in San Francisco, hosts a website featuring pollinator-friendly planting guides for 24 regions from the Adirondacks to Hawaii, and including the Laurentian Mixed Forests of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Want to know what will attract bats to gobble up mosquitoes and find sustenance in your garden? Plants with dull white, green or purple colors with a strong musty odor emitted at night. Moths like the same nighttime odor in plants that are dull red, purple, pink or white.

We learn that bees here are particularly helpful in pollinating foods as varied as apples, asparagus and squash. Meadows and water sources are good for pollinators. Lots of lawn and the use of pesticides and herbicides are not.

Even President Barack Obama is stepping on the bee bandwagon. Last week he signed a memorandum creating a new inter-agency task force to develop strategies to protect pollinators. The order charges federal agencies “to broadly advance honey bee and other pollinator health and habitat.”

The USDA has allocated $8 million in incentives to ranchers and farmers for establishing bee habitat.

In its sixth year, the White House vegetable garden is now sporting a pollinators’ section to bring attention to the country’s sharp decline in populations of bees and butterflies. That’s a honey-sweet model for the rest of us, too.

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I'm happy to read MN will be receiving honeybee support money!

In recent years, farmers' markets have proliferated along with first-time gardeners. Many new or long-time gardeners alike want to garden as naturally as possible, getting organic seeds/plants from reliable sources, black garden dirt/seed starting medium and fertilizers without toxins/pesticides, etc. I think most veggie gardeners have been diligent in growing produce that they eat is free from dangerous chemicals but not realizing until recently that pesticide treated perennial flower plants, shrubs, etc are a problem for honeybees. Garden centers are already offering more pesticide free products which I'm sure will increase as more concerned gardeners request them.

A lot of increased interest in veggie gardening has been sparked by the desire for tomatoes that taste like the tomatoes our grandparents would grow. Container and raised bed gardening are great options for people with small yards, tiny apartment patios and those with physical disabilities. I know a young man living in a tiny apartment in a big city who grows tomatoes, lettuces, peppers and herbs in his very small outdoor space. He even easily composts all year round with worms in his apartment to make dirt for his plants which impressed me. What's not to love about composting! I love seeing all the veggie etc scraps turn into beautiful dirt and not filling up my garbage can.

I already have bee balm and oregano plants that spread like crazy but thanks for the mention of Pollinator Partnership. I will check that out for more pollinator friendly plants.

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