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Bringing Back the Bees

Some bees are specialists that only pollinate certain plants. This squash bee works the Cucurbita crops—squash and pumpkins.  (Photo courtesy of Nancy Adamson and the Xerces Society)

Some bees are specialists that only pollinate certain plants. This squash bee works the Cucurbita crops—squash and pumpkins. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Adamson and the Xerces Society)

A recently awarded USDA Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) will fund research into bee-friendly seed mixes.

A partnership made up of the Xerces Society, University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wisconsin is working to develop and test seed mixes that will provide the best habitat for native bees. CIG-funded projects use innovative technologies and approaches to address natural resources issues.

Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce, and in the U.S., bees are the main pollinators of fruits and vegetables. But bees, bats and other pollinators are struggling as habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants have all contributed to the decline of many species of pollinators, including the more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America.

To ensure that bees and other pollinators don’t just survive, but also thrive, USDA programs provide funding and technical assistance for farmers to implement pollinator-friendly practices on their lands. One important practice is incorporating plantings that attract native bees and other pollinators to the borders of fields and other areas and feed them a varied diet throughout the year.

Providing healthy habitat for native bees will also help feed managed hives of European honey bees—which are used to pollinate many commercial crops in the U.S.—and make them heartier, as they too reap the benefits of a diverse and healthy diet.

Not long ago, Wisconsin was home to 13 species of bumble bee. Now, two of the most common bumblebees are no longer found here, due to habitat loss and environmental contaminants.  (Photo courtesy of Hannah Gaines from UW-Madison Entomology Dept.)

Not long ago, Wisconsin was home to 13 species of bumble bee. Now, two of the most common bumblebees are no longer found here, due to habitat loss and environmental contaminants. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Gaines from UW-Madison Entomology Dept.)

That’s where bee-friendly seed mixes come in. Four half-acre demonstration sites have been planted using the new seed mixes in field borders and buffer areas: on apple and fresh vegetable farms, a cranberry operation, and a cucumber-and-pepper farm. The first results will be seen this summer, when scientists will observe how quickly and successfully the new plantings establish themselves, and how quickly the bees return.

Getting the right seed mix to attract and sustain a healthy native bee population is a challenge. Bees need flowers—but not just any flowers. They need to be the right color and size, and bloom at the right times.

Bees are attracted to white, yellow, blue or purple flowers. Bees also need a variety of sizes, ranging from big sturdy flowers for the bumble bees to small delicate ones for the sweat bees. Timing is also important—for example, bees need some flowers to be steadily in bloom from the time the bees first crawl out of their winter nests in early spring until they go back in late fall.

Find out more about Conservation Innovation Grants.

Check out more conservation stories on the USDA blog.

Follow NRCS on Twitter.

12 Responses to “Bringing Back the Bees”

  1. Old Technician says:

    If USDA wishes to protect honeybees, we need to get serious about limited the excessive use of pesticides and limit a farmers ability to clear fencerows and woodlots. We have a 1970′s metality in the farming community right now with commodity prices as they are.

  2. nancy bergman says:

    this is great but the #1 bee friendly thing that farmers can do it monitor their use of pesticides–especially systemic pesticides. All the habitat in the world can be planted but if the bees are being poisoned it is not going to do a bit of good.

  3. Bill Miller says:

    Are there any grants now available to farmers planting specialized types of Wild flower or other types of Bee food plants on their Bee farms ? Thank you, Bill Miller, 1/27/12.

  4. Jeff Bodony says:

    Hi Renae,thanks for your good and important work.In doing the trials for pollinator forage plants ,how about including common “medicinals”,then the farms will have another crop to work into their marketing plan and will give them an added incentive to protect and propagate these species which are vital to ALL of us.
    JB Viriditas Wild Gardens

  5. Soil Conservationist says:

    Bill Miller,

    Contact your local NRCS by Feb 4 to sign up for EQIP, a program that offers a flat rate payment incentive for planting pollinator habitat if you meet program eligibility requirements.

  6. Honey Bee Lover says:

    What about the “urban” use of Sevin? What about cleared hardwoods that are replanted in pines, or developed into sub-divisions? These have nothing to do with your average farmer. Let’s not point fingers at just one group.

  7. Rebecca [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Bill,

    Thanks for your question about aid for farmers planting pollinator-friendly plants. Farmers and ranchers applying for NRCS assistance through Farm Bill programs who propose incorporating bee- and other pollinator-friendly practices on their lands, including the planting of pollinator habitat, can gain additional points when their applications are ranked, making them more likely to be accepted. For more information, please visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/pollinate/help and/or contact your local NRCS office (find it on this map: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/contact/local).

    Sincerely,

    Sarah Graddy
    NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

  8. Bee Keeper says:

    Trying to establish bees is costly. What about some program to help with this exspence? I have established 7 hives and wish to do more,

  9. Carla Bowman says:

    Hi, I don’t recognize the purple wildflower(???) pictured here, it is quite different. What is the name, please? Could it be grown in Central Pennsylvania, Zone 6? Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  10. Doug Pedersen says:

    When you say navtive bee species do you mean truly native?
    I think a lot of people forget the honey bee is not native to the USA and partially lead to the decline in native bee species.
    Hopefully we can keep the farm programs that incourage lots of native forbes and wildflowers going strong.

  11. Lady Beekeeper says:

    The purple wildflower looks a lot like Tansy. Wish I had known about the EQIP program! I plant lots of bee friendly flora on my 22 acres.

    Pesticides are a problem, but so are herbicides! And now everyone wants to plant “Roundup Ready” ______. Or the latest and greatest clover/vetch/whatever from Their State’s A&M. All of which are SELF-Pollinating! We need to teach people to return to rotation crops, legume/smother plantings, and get people to think about caring for their farms and ranches, NOT just making money off of them.

    We should be stewards and care takers, not just producers.

  12. Wreaths For Door says:

    Hi, I had heard that there was a bee problem until last year when I went to my local garden center for flowers. The horticulturist told me of the problem and I found extremely worry some. We need bees from a human stand point no bees, no pollination = no food = no life. I sell Wreaths and heavily rely on west coast farmers for my products. I agree back to basics of farming

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