2012 22.2 Pollinator Conservation in the Northwest

Northwest farmers arguably grow more bee-pollinated crops than anywhere else in North America. Washington’s tree fruit and berry industries, vegetable seed farms, and eastside canola and alfalfa seed producers are dependent on healthy pollinators. There are simple strategies and numerous resources for effective on-farm pollinator conservation.

Despite the high number of bee-pollinated crops in the Northwest, the decline of honey bees and native pollinators continues to make headlines. For example, scientists have documented the widespread decline of important crop pollinators like the Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis)—formerly among the most common bumble bee species in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. While researchers are not seeing insufficient pollination for most crops, farmers are faced with rising honey bee rental fees, and practices like the use of non-native bumble bees imported into Washington from commercial producers in the eastern US.

Fortunately, there are simple steps that any farm can take to conserve pollinators. Extensive work by the Xerces Society and research partners at UC Berkeley, Rutgers, Michigan State University and others, clearly demonstrates that when enough natural habitat is present on a farm, wild bees supported by that habitat can fulfill all of the farm’s pollination needs.

Pollinators have two basic habitat needs: a diversity of flowering plants (preferably native), and nesting sites. In addition, farmers can take an active role in reducing pollinator mortality. While insecticides are an obvious threat, other farm operations such as burning, grazing, and tillage (which impacts ground-nesting bees) can also be lethal to pollinators.

Simple farm strategies for pollinator conservation

      1. Plant flowers. Lupines, clarkia, asters, goldenrod, balsamroot, blanketflower, and milkweeds are excellent native wildflower choices that attract wild bees and are common across much of Washington. Non-native (and non-invasive) annuals such as lacy phacelia, cosmos, cereal buckwheat, and crimson clover can also be planted as low-cost insectary field borders and cover crops to attract bees and other beneficial insects.
      2. Minimize pesticide use. While conventional insecticides and fungicides are often linked to bee mortality, some organic-approved products can also pose a risk. Pyrethrins and Spinosad, two common organic options are dangerous for bees, and should not be used on blooming plants or near areas where bees are nesting. Insecticidal soaps and oils are generally safer choices, as long as they are not applied to flowers that bees are actively visiting.

      Simple strategies like spraying in the evening and calibrating spray equipment (to avoid over-application) can also reduce harm to pollinators. Many alternatives to pesticides are also available for specific crops, such as floating row covers, kaolin clay pest barriers (like the product Surround), pheromone traps for specific pests, and crop rotation and diversity to avoid pest outbreaks.

      The same conservation strategies that support native bees also enhance populations of other beneficial insects, including those that prey upon or parasitize crop pests. Thus, conserving pollinators can help further reduce the need for insecticides.

      3. Maintain conservation buffers. Hedgerows, windbreaks, and shelterbelts can provide multiple farm benefits. These “living fences” obviously help reduce erosion and provide visual screening for the farm, but they also provide nesting and overwintering refuge for pollinators. To further support pollinators, these conservation buffers can include native flowering trees and shrubs such as Oregon grape, wax currant, ninebark, vine maple, ceanothus, red currant, and ocean spray.

      Conversely, buffers of tall evergreen trees can help reduce pesticide drift from neighboring farms, protecting resident pollinator populations. Tall evergreen buffers may also help reduce gene flow from neighboring genetically modified (GMO) and non-organic crop varieties by reducing windborne pollen and discouraging bees from moving between distant crop fields.

Financial and Technical Support for Pollinator Conservation

To help farmers create pollinator habitat, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) now offers technical and financial assistance for conservation practices like hedgerow planting and establishing wildflower meadows. Specific programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and others offer various opportunities to help meet farmers’ conservation goals.

The NRCS has also made organic producers a priority demographic for assistance through the agency’s nationwide EQIP Organic Initiative. Generally as a first step in this process, the agency works with the producer to develop a whole farm conservation plan. More information, including contact information for local NRCS offices is available at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov

Habitat Restoration Using Organic Practices

While tremendous advances in the science of pollinator conservation are being made, critical issues remain. This is especially true for organic farmers.

For example, since USDA grants became available for pollinator habitat conservation through the current Farm Bill, organic producers have been among the largest client groups to request that funding. In most cases however, USDA guidelines recommend the use of conventional herbicides (such as glyphosate) as a first step in preparing an area for wildflower restoration. Indeed, USDA technical advice for establishing diverse wildflower plantings using organic methods is usually either lacking or entirely non-existent. This knowledge-gap stems from the larger native plant restoration community, which has developed standards dependent on chemical herbicides.

To address this need, the Xerces Society, the USDA-NRCS, and the Organic Tree Fruit Association have partnered to conduct a first-of-it’s-kind field trial on organic practices for large-scale wildflower restoration.

This project, beginning in 2012 in 6 states, will test organic site preparation techniques such as solarization, smother cropping, and the use of horticultural vinegar to understand which strategies are most effective at preparing weedy field borders for wildflower planting. Along with initial weed suppression, project costs and labor hours will be documented. From the results of this research, the Xerces Society will develop how-to publications and provide training to organic farmers nationwide. More information will be available soon on the Xerces Society website (www.xerces.org).

Special Support for Organic Seed Producers

The need to develop organic guidelines for habitat restoration is especially critical to organic seed producers. Recent debates around the threat of GMO crops to organic seed varieties have made pollinator management a central concern for seed producers.

The extent to which GMO pollen is transferred via pollinators to organic seed crops is uncertain. However, differences between honey bees and native bees may play a role in determining the level of risk. For example, a single honey bee can easily forage over 50 square miles, making them likely to encounter crops on neighboring farms. In contrast, native bees typically forage over much shorter distances, often less than a mile away from their nest site. Thus where native bees are the primary pollinators, their shorter foraging range could provide a natural limitation against out-crossing from nearby GMO and non-organic crops.

Similarly, the tremendous diversity of organic crop varieties necessitates a wide range of pollinator species. Honey bees are valuable generalist pollinators that can be supplied in large numbers. On a bee-for-bee basis however, specialist native bees, such as squash bees in cucurbits and bumble bees in heirloom tomatoes, have been documented to significantly increase seed yield.

To support organic seed producers, the Xerces Society, with support from the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Organic Valley, is developing a new publication and classroom training titled, “Pollinator Conservation Strategies for Organic Seed Producers”. The program will be available in late 2012, and will provide seed producers with conservation strategies for specific pollinators of various seed crops—as well as—risk reduction guidelines for protecting against outcrossing from nearby GMO varieties.

Additional resources

The Xerces Society maintains an online database of pollinator conservation information including USDA and Extension fact sheets, downloadable Xerces Society publications like Farming for Bees, wildflower restoration guidelines, pesticide information and bulletins for organic farmers, and links to native wildflower nurseries through the Pollinator Conservation Resource Center: www.xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center

The Xerces Society’s new book, Attracting Native Pollinators, provides an additional resource for farmers with extensive background information and an identification guide to common native bees of North America, along with chapters on native bee nest construction, habitat restoration, and managing threats to pollinators. The book is on sale everywhere, including the Xerces Society website.

Washington State University’s How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides is one of the most comprehensive guides of its kind available. The publication includes risk information for both conventional and organic pesticides, and discusses risks not just to honey bees, but other important bee pollinators in Washington including alfalfa leafcutter bees, alkali bees, orchard mason bees, and bumble bees. It can be downloaded for free at, https://pubs.wsu.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=14994

Finally, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recently launched a service to help people select locally native wildflowers for pollinator gardens, mass insectary plantings, and bee pastures. The Special Collections section of their database (www.wildflower.org/collections) allows website visitors to search for wildflowers of special value to native bees in general, as well as plants with particular value to bumble bees, honey bees, or other beneficial insects (such as those that prey upon crop pests). These search criteria can be further refined to find plants native to specific states, soil and shade conditions, and even flower color.

Eric Mader is Assistant Pollinator Program Director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and Extension Professor of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. His previous work includes commercial beekeeping and crop consulting for the native seed industry.

Tags: Bee, Bees, Conservation, EQIP, NRCS, Pesticides, Poisoning, Pollinators, Xerces