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Bee buzz gets louder at Capitol

A bee, its wings flapping so rapidly they barely can be seen, takes off from one flower and looks for another. In the process, it takes pollen from plant to plant. (Don Davis/Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL — Bees are tiny, but are big players in crop production, so the growing problem of them dying off is creating a huge concern throughout the Upper Midwest.

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Minnesota leaders are looking at ways to help because bees are chief pollinators of many crops throughout the region. More than a third of crops depend on bees to produce food.

“Without pollinators, all of us, more or less, will be affected,” entomologist Vera Krischik of the University of Minnesota recently told a state House committee. “It is something that everybody needs to be concerned about.”

Minnesota government is looking at a variety of ways to help bees, including improving their habitat in the country and city. The Legislature, which convenes on Feb. 25, will consider spending $2.3 million for pollinator-favorable programs.

Gov. Mark Dayton also wants to expand University of Minnesota bee research facilities.

A major problem bees face is pesticide incorporated into seeds, Krischik said. Such pesticides are fairly new, and affect bees and other insects far more than the traditional practice of spraying pesticides on plants.

One treated corn kernel contains enough pesticide to kill 40,000 honey bees, bee keeper Steve Ellism of Barrett, said.

The owner of Old Mill Honey Co. in west-central Minnesota, Ellis said that when seeds are treated with pesticide, the entire plant is toxic. Once the crop is harvested, Ellis said, the pesticide remains in the soil, lasting from year to year.

There are not enough bees to adequately pollinate crops, Ellis said.

Nationally, nearly 35 percent of bees are dying off each winter, compared to the 5 percent loss before the bee crisis began a decade ago, he said. His bees have suffered 65 percent annual mortality, he added.

“Our losses are not sustainable,” he said.

It is not just that bees are dying, Krischik said. Some pesticides cause bees to “forget who they are,” and they no longer can find their way.

The bee problem, which affects much of the world, remains somewhat of a mystery. That is why Dayton asked legislators to approve $12 million in his construction proposal for updating university research facilities to study the bee problem as well as to study how to control invasive species such as Asian carp. The university would add another $6 million.

The U of M’s bee research facility is the only one in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota.

Several state agencies just gave the Legislature a report that found “large knowledge and data gaps” about pollinators.

“Hopefully, we can change the situation and increase pollinators,” Krischik said.

Another University of Minnesota scientist, Marla Spivak, said that honey bees, introduced to the Western Hemisphere from Europe in the 1600s, pollinate crops worth $18 billion nationally. Native bees pollinate $3 billion worth of crops.

Up to 400 native bee species live in Minnesota. While the stereotypical bee home is a hive, natives often live elsewhere, such as in the ground.

One of the bee mysteries is how many have died, U of M’s Elaine Evans said.

Bumble bees, native to the region, appear to be changing where they live, and their North American populations are dropping.

“We are still figuring out what is happening,” Evans said.

One of the problems Spivak pointed out is that tiny parasites are increasing, sucking blood from honey bees.

Part of the problem, Spivak said, is that many plants upon which bees depend no longer are available.

“From the bees’ perspective, there just is a lack of nectar …” Spivak said. “We need to plant more bee-friendly flowers.”

Roadside ditches are being mowed, she said, eliminating a major source of pollen. Some legislators are discussing restricting roadside mowing.

Alfalfa now is being cut before it blooms, a difference from years past when bees had access to blooms before the hay was cut. Conservation Reserve Program land, a federal initiative to keep some land from being farmed, is being used less and less in states such as North Dakota and South Dakota, Spivak added, as farmers increase cropland to make more money.

Also, she said, yellow and white sweet clover that honey bees like are considered invasive species and are being controlled.

Whatever all the problems are, Ellis said, government officials should not wait to find a fix.

“Bees are in big trouble, and we have to do something about it right away,” Ellis said. “We cannot wait around.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.