One of the suspected culprits in pollinator decline is the loss of the amount and diversity of forage habitat. This decline not only affects managed honey bees, but includes other pollinators, such as butterflies and moths. Wild bumblebees, for example, are crucial for pollinating some plants and who not only face declines in habitat but are fighting pathogens that are spread to them by honey bees. While habitat loss is not likely the sole cause of increased morbidity in pollinators, access to high quality, local sources of nutrition may be crucial for maintaining colonies already struggling with other stresses, such as disease.
Much of this loss in habitat can be attributed to high commodity prices increasing the opportunity cost of land. Considering the well-documented challenges facing pollinators, especially honey bees, in this country, a logical place for policymakers to turn to increase pollinator habitat is through the suite of programs in the conservation title of the Farm Bill.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress amended the administrative requirements for all conservation programs in order to encourage pollinator habitat development and protection. Specifically, Congress gave USDA the authority to encourage development of habitat and to encourage the use of conservation practices that benefit pollinators. This authority was broad and spans the administration of all conservation programs in the Farm Bill.
After the directive from the 2008 Farm Bill, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which runs the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established a specific initiative within that program for landowners to create long-lasting meadows of high-quality native wildflowers that support pollinators. Part of this initiative included covering 50 percent of the cost to establish the pollinator habitat and a one-time $150 per acre incentive payment for some enrolled acres.
Recent efforts by USDA have included $3 million for Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin for improving pollinator habitat through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These five states host the majority of commercial bee colonies during the summer. The funds are to provide technical and financial assistance specifically for conservation practices, such as cover crops or pasture management.
In June of this year, USDA announced $8 million in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) incentives for landowners in these same five states who establish new habitats for honey bee populations. This CRP Pollinator Initiative seeks to use new seed mixes developed by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA and combines with the effort to enroll 100,000 acres of meadows containing native wildflowers that support pollinators. The announcement was in response to a directive from President Obama during National Pollinator Week, June 15-21 to all government agencies to take additional steps to protect and restore pollinator populations.
On August 20, FSA notified the offices in those five midwestern states (Mich., Minn., ND, SD, and Wis.) of their authority to develop what is called mid-contract management activities that are designed to increase flowering plant diversity for the benefit of pollinators, particularly honey bees. Minnesota and the Dakotas have large percentages of their crop land in CRP, presumably providing significant potential for increasing the forage quality on these lands. This initiative is for grasslands currently under a CRP contract for the landowner to use mid-contract management to establish blocks (at least 1 acre in size) on the CRP land for honey bee habitat to replace grass monocultures with seed mixes that will establish honey bee habitat. FSA anticipates costs to do so may exceed $200 per acre on average and part of the $8 million provided in June will now go towards helping cover the costs of establishing habitat. Assistance can exceed $50 per acre per year but is not to exceed $100 per acre for the life of the 10-year contract. In addition, FSA is offering a one-time $120 per acre incentive payment for those who sign up for this habitat initiative.
In general, mid-contract management is required for some lands enrolled in the CRP to manage the plant communities on the land, such as for increasing diversity, providing habitat, and removing vegetation that is not beneficial. Mid-contract management can generally be carried out by burning, spraying, disking, or interseeding. For pollinators, such management is to be applied in years 4, 5, and 6 of the 10-year CRP contract.
Emphasizing habitat activities in these states makes sense for the sake of increasing nutritional availability for commercially managed colonies. These operations are often migratory and involved in providing pollination services for almonds and other crops. Anecdotally, finding high-quality habitat has become more difficult with the increase in corn acreage across this region. Having more areas with high-quality forage is likely beneficial to both bees and beekeepers. One concern is that, while improving the habitat quality of CRP lands, these programs do not address the substantial loss in CRP acreage across the upper Midwest. Further, commercial bee keepers are able to move their bees to parcels with high-quality forage, but concerns arise about those colonies that are restricted to a location, whether they be wild colonies, colonies pollinating specific crops or colonies managed by hobbyists whose bees are not frequently or easily moved. Project Apis m. (PAm) is working with farmers who require pollination services to plant pollinator habitat near almond orchards to increase the nutrition available for bees, particularly before and after the almond bloom. For wild pollinators, providing even small areas of good, diverse forage may be beneficial, as proposed under a bill currently introduced in California.
Other policies could target the provision of small parcels of habitat that can be mixed in with areas of large-scale commercial field crop production, particularly corn and soybeans which are not good sources of nutrition for bees. Such efforts can improve habitat without significantly interrupting crop production. There are currently policies available that might provide good policy mechanisms for this type of intervention on habitat, most notably some of the sub-programs within the CRP. One example is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). CREP is a component of the CRP that targets high-priority conservation issues identified at the local level and works in partnership with state and/or tribal governments. Similar to CRP, it operates through long-term (10 to 15 years) contracts with the landowner receiving federal benefits in the form of annual rental payments, which are often at higher rates than general CRP contracts. CREP rental rates are often higher than general CRP because they are targeting lands that are particularly sensitive for certain natural resource issues. These are often smaller tracts of land and are less disruptive to production. State incentives and assistance through the partnership agreement with FSA are important as well, with benefits flowing to the landowner.
Another similar sub-program within CRP is called “Continuous CRP” and it also focuses on environmentally sensitive land but the offers are not ranked against each other as in a general CRP. Continuous CRP looks specifically to land that is prone to erosion or land that borders river and stream banks. Continuous CRP is not limited to those lands and includes buffers for wildlife habitat. Included within continuous CRP is the State Acres for wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) which is initiated by the state and provides flexibility to meet the specific needs of wildlife of particularly high value in the state, including pollinators. Overall, USDA is seeking to restore or enhance 500,000 acres through this effort.
In general, while its heartening to see moves to support the increase in quantity and quality of available pollinator habitat, there may be room to move to programs targeted at protecting wild pollinator species and specifically to introduce habitat in landscapes with little habitat or nutritional diversity at the moment. By all appearances, the programmatic and policy tools are available or in some cases have existing flexibilities that would permit their use for such an effort. Further work with FSA by local and state organizations, including governmental and non-governmental, as well as producers, may lead to some creative solutions that could benefit pollinators and all of us that eat as a result of their good work