Feds will pay farmers to create thousands of acres of bee habitats

Healthy colony
A honey bee hive at the California & Minnesota Honey Farms in Eagle Bend, Minn.
Ann Arbor Miller/For MPR News 2011

Minnesota is one of five states where the federal government hopes to expand bee habitat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday announced the Conservation Reserve Program will provide $8 million in incentives for farmers and ranchers in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Wisconsin and Michigan who establish new habitats for declining honey bee populations.

"In recent years, factors such as diseases, parasites, pesticides or habitat loss have contributed to a significant decline in the honey bee population," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. "This $8 million is part of the Administration's ongoing strategy to reverse these trends and establish more plant habitat on Conservation Reserve Program lands to restore the bee population."

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The money will be provided to farmers who add bee friendly plants to existing conservation land, said Mike Schmidt, a deputy administrator at the Federal Farm Service Agency.

Schmidt hopes the program, which targets states with high honeybee populations, will create tens of thousands of acres of bee habitat in the Midwest, with plants that are designed specifically for bees.

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"The seed mixes can be a little more focused and also aren't quite as costly so we're hoping it's a little more palatable for landowners," he said. "The cost isn't as much so the bar isn't as high to get folks to sign up."

Under the program, landowners and the federal government will split the cost of seeding plants that provide food for bees. Landowners will be paid a bonus for signing on to the program.

An existing pollinator habitat program in place since 2011 pays landowners to create new habitat that will benefit all pollinating insects.

As of January, Minnesota had only 12 acres enrolled in that program.

Also on Friday, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to take steps to protect and restore populations of pollinators like bees, bats and butterflies.

Minnesota has been at the forefront of protecting pollinators. University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak was one of about 50 experts that went to Washington in April to push for the order announced Friday.

"The causes are complex and they're interacting — the lack of flowers, pesticides and then diseases and parasites — so those three broad categories of things interact in ways that just put bees and other organisms in downward spirals," Spivak said.

The president's declaration creates a task force that will recommend ways agencies can help pollinators. It also orders agencies to set aside more habitats for pollinators on federal lands.

MPR News' Jon Collins contributed to this report.