Researchers and beekeepers alike have been sounding the alarm over the drastic decline in bee populations over the course of the past two decades. 

Randall Cass, an entomologist who has worked with the Iowa State University Extension Program for the past five years, spoke with Country Folks to discuss this issue as well as a program aimed at addressing it. 

How is our food supply affected by bee pollination? 

Bees are important for pollinating many of the foods we eat. This includes honeybees and other managed bees like bumblebees and alfalfa leafcutter bees, as well as the many species of wild native bees we have across the country. We can attribute about one out of every three bites of food we take to bee pollination. 

What are likely causes of recent bee population decline? 

Most insect populations have been in decline over the past few decades; we see this with many species of bees as well. Although we are seeing greater annual colony loss with honeybees, since they are semi-domesticated we are able to easily replace lost colonies each year. We can either purchase new bees from suppliers or split our surviving colonies. Rather than there being a single reason for bee population decline, research shows that it seems to be a combination of factors including a reduction in foraging and nesting habitat, pathogens and pests (such as the Varroa mite parasite in honeybees) and pesticide exposure. 

Can you briefly describe the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and its CP42/Pollinator Habitat Initiative? 

CRP was created by the USDA over 30 years ago to promote soil, water and wildlife habitat conservation by taking degraded land out of agricultural production. CRP gives farmers and landowners 10- to 15-year contracts to implement conservation practices on their land, such as establishing vegetative cover, riparian buffers and grass waterways. CRP funds are also offered specifically to establish diverse pollinator habitat through the CP42 designation. 

Focus on conservation: Pollinator Habitat Initiative 

Randall Cass, an entomologist with the Iowa State University Extension Program, wants landowners to know their options when it comes to helping with bee colony preservation. Photo courtesy of Christopher Gannon, ISU

How does the initiative hope to address current problems in bee populations? 

Expanding foraging and nesting habitat benefits all bees. Take the state where I work, for example. In Iowa, around 85% of our land is currently in agricultural production. Prior to European settlement, the state was primarily tall grass prairie. By establishing better habitat for our pollinators we can encourage population growth for this important sector of the ecosystem. 

What makes land/landowners eligible for the CP42 program? 

To be eligible for CP42, the land must be cropland and meet cropping history requirements as specified in the Code of Federal Regulations. Land currently enrolled in CRP may be re-offered for enrollment into CP42 if the land enrolled in CRP is in the last year of the CRP-1 contract. Whole fields may be enrolled. If not planted in whole fields, block plantings are preferred over strips. If planted in strips, each strip must be a minimum of 20 feet wide. The minimum size requirement of CP42 is 0.5 acres. Contracts for CP42 practices must have a duration of 10 years. 

Do you have any additional advice for those who might be interested? 

Establishing more habitat for both honeybees and wild bees is one of the easiest things we can do to support pollinator populations. However, I encourage people to keep in mind that the relationship between honeybees and native bees is complicated and something we are still studying. Some research shows that placing too many honeybee colonies at a single apiary site may negatively impact the diversity and abundance of native species of bees because it creates higher competition for floral resources. Bees get their food, nectar and pollen, from flowers. Most wild bees are solitary, while a single honeybee colony may have between 20,000 and 60,000 bees. 

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by Enrico Villamaino