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How to turn unproductive field areas into pollinator havens

Cattle and swine are typically the first animals that come to mind when it comes to livestock. Still, don’t overlook the Apis mellifera — better known as the honey bee  — its “herd” is in danger. A free program available for farmers, acreage owners, cities, and parks offers a chance to help.

Pollinators, bees in particular, are a critical component of our food production system. Bee pollination adds an estimated $18 billion to the agricultural industry, according to the USDA. More than 100 U.S. crops depend on assistance from pollinators. 

“One in every three mouthfuls of food we eat would not be possible without bee pollination,” says Elsa Gallagher, habitat program director for The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. “They’re a high quality pollinator.”

Where have the pollinators gone? 

An orange monarch butterfly feeding on a pink flower.
Photo credit: USDA

Still, pollinators like bees are facing hard times these days. Honey bee hives in the United States have drastically decreased from 6 million in the 1940s to about 2.5 million today. 

“If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” - Aldo Leopold, author and conservationist, from “Round River” (1953)

Gallagher cited this quote to show how bees and butterflies also act as an indicator of ecosystem health — “cogs'' in our “land mechanism.” The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently listed the migratory monarch butterflies as an endangered species, with population levels declining between 22-72% in the last decade — possibly a sign of environmental decline.

Monarch butterflies also just narrowly avoided being listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There is no sole source of population decline. Habitat loss due to myriad issues is the biggest challenge facing pollinators, according to Gallagher. 

A honeybee feeding on the nectar of a red and yellow flower.
Photo credit: USDA

For example, common milkweed has declined due to common milkweed to modern land management practices. Roughly 90% of monarch butterfly species are raised on milkweed, but mowing in roadside ditches has eliminated much of this food source. This also eliminates many of the weeds, such as  dandelions, bees use for food sources. 

“If you mow that area, you can see it's pretty much devoid of any benefit to wildlife,” says Gallagher. “There's just a short little carpet of little grass stocks, not providing any kind of benefit. Anything that we do that eliminates the blooming of the species that these animals need is really detrimental.”

Climate change is another major threat to the monarch’s annual migration pattern from their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada to Mexico. Colder winters could kill the butterflies, and warmer summers could move their habitats further north. An increasing frequency of droughts limit the growth of milkweed and increase the frequency of wildfires, according to the IUCN 

Bees are in a similar crisis, experiencing high annual losses hovering around 40-50% every year, says Gallagher. Not all hope is lost, however. 

“It's something that we think people have real control over,” says Gallagher. “Everyone can do something about the habitat loss issue.” 

What can farmers do to help?

An orange sign for the Next Gen Projects Bee and Butterfly Habitat fund in wildflower field planted with the seed mix.
Photo credit: The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund

The Seed a Legacy program, created by the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund, was started to bring life back to pollinator habitats. The fund is a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing and improving pollinator habitats, and increasing population numbers. The fund is a collaborative effort by Project Apis m, and Browning’s Honey Co. that brings together landowners, conservationists, scientists, and beekeepers to specifically target pollinator’s needs. 

The Seed a Legacy program works with private, public, and corporate landowners to establish habitats in 12-state region in the Midwest. This doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking either, according to Gallagher. This program enables landowners to make use out of the unproductive parts of their land, turning ditches and field corners into habitats for pollinators.

“You can make a difference on small acreages, you can make a difference by not mowing your roadside ditches, or by planting a good quality mix along that roadside edge,” says Gallagher.

The program provides free seed mixes for properties with a minimum of two acres where existing vegetation has been fully terminated. Sites with existing vegetation may still be accepted, with a habitat establishment and management guide available to make optimal preparations. Each state in the program has different seed mixes optimized for attracting honey bees and monarch butterflies, also listed on the website. The program also offers free technical assistance from expert biologists throughout the entirety of the project.

The Seed A Legacy program accepts applications all year round. For more information on how to apply for the program, visit beeandbutterflyfund.org

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