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Published February 28, 2014, 12:37 PM

USDA offering bee habitat incentives to farmers, ranchers

Bees are probably best known for the honey they produce, but that’s not the only benefit they provide for mankind.

By: Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service

Bees are probably best known for the honey they produce, but that’s not the only benefit they provide for mankind.

Those buzzing little insects also pollinate a large portion of America’s commercial agriculture crops, though honey bees have been dying off at an alarming rate in recent years.

In an effort to help curb that trend, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced on Feb. 25 that it will provide close to $3 million for farmers and ranchers in five states — North Dakota and South Dakota among them — to provide forage habitat aimed at improving pollinator health.

“Beekeepers in North Dakota are losing unprecedented numbers of honey bee hives each year,” North Dakota state conservationist Mary Podoll said. “Honey bee pollination is estimated to support more than $15 billion worth of agricultural production and commercial production of more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet in the U.S.”

Funding through the initiative will be provided by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to promote conservation practices that will provide honey bees with nutritious pollen and nectar, according to a USDA release.

“This is basically a financial assistance opportunity for farmers and ranchers who control agricultural lands to improve habitat for pollinators,” Podoll said. “They’ll be able to get assistance for such practices as cover crops, conservation cover, field border, forage harvest management and others. We will also be able, through this, to cover some costs of foregone income. There could be a little more incentive to give certain practices a try.”

Some of the other conservation practices listed in a USDA pollinators fact sheet provided by Podoll include riparian herbaceous cover, forage and biomass planting, range planting, prescribed grazing and early successional habitat development.

Podoll said that information about the program was scheduled to be rolled out today at all North Dakota field offices.

Forage grounds for honey bees in the state are in short supply, North Dakota Beekeepers Association director Bonnie Woodworth of Halliday said.

“Anything they could do would be a plus,” Woodworth said. “There have been a lot of CRP lands that have gone and a lot of it that was there — the alfalfa — was killed when they were spraying for Canada thistle. There is a shortage in North Dakota and in the upper Midwest — there’s just too much corn and soy bean acreage.”

Prior to 2006, beekeepers would historically lose about 10 to 15 percent of their colonies each year, a number that has skyrocketed to around 30 percent in recent years, according to the USDA. Midwestern states, according to the department, represent the resting ground for more than 65 percent of commercially-managed honey bees in the U.S. from June to September.

Besides the Dakotas, the other states chosen for the program were Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

“It’s not at all uncommon for beekeepers today to lose 35 percent of their colonies in a year and 50 percent is not unheard of,” Woodworth said. “It’s a big problem. Obviously, if ranchers lost 35 percent of their cows each year it would be a huge thing. The main issue really revolves around the varroa mites, which are the biggest cause of bee loss. Not just the mites themselves, but the viruses that the mites vector inside the bee. When they puncture a feeding hole in a bee, that hole is just like having an open sore. All sorts of viruses can creep in and the bees just aren’t healthy.”

Commonly referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, the dying off of large numbers of honey bees is a phenomenon that was first notice by experts about eight years ago, according to the USDA.

“As a leading producer of honey, North Dakota has a vested interest in bee health,” stated USDA Rural Development state director Jasper Schneider in an email Thursday. “Working together with farmers and ranchers, we can provide safe and diverse food sources.”

Woodworth said a number of factors have been having an adverse effect on bees in recent years, including the application of certain types of chemicals to agricultural lands.

“Like farmers, the beekeeping community is also aging,” Woodworth said. “Unless there’s profitability in beekeeping, the younger people won’t be so inclined to get invested in it. Right now, there’s just more money in growing corn and soybeans. If they really want to help beekeepers, some assistance with mite treatments would be very helpful. We treat for mites three times per year and each application costs about $11,000.”

The application deadline for the program is March 21. For more information, landowners are asked to contact their local NRCS field office.

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