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Seeds for bees: Worries drive new plantings for pollinators

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Coneflower seed head
A coneflower seed head waits to drop seeds on a farm near Glyndon, Minn., on Wednesday. Seed demand for conservation projects is shifting from native grasses to native wildflowers.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Jim Johansen harvests native grass seeds that his company sells to farmers for conservation projects. But seed demand is shifting to native wildflowers.

Worry over the widespread deaths of honey bees has led the seed company Prairie Restoration to increase production of plants that provide habitat for pollinators, including bees and butterflies. It's "definitely changing the way we look at things," said Johansen, who manages native seed production on the farm near Moorhead.

For many years, native seed operations focused on grass-dominant mixes for farmland enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Now, there are fewer acres enrolled in CRP and a growing emphasis on habitat for pollinating species. That's changing Minnesota's plant seed industry in ways good for business and the bees, observers say.

Native seed companies are changing production practices to produce more wildflower seed and the entire native seed industry is adjusting to the changing demand, said Keith Fredrick, production manager for Minnesota Native Landscapes in Otsego, Minnesota.

"In the past it was probably a fairly good business decision to focus on a relatively small number of species and produce a lot of seed. Now it's probably a better decision to grow a wider range of plants and produce smaller quantities of those plants," said Fredrick, president of the Minnesota Native Wildflower/Grass Producers Association, a trade group with a dozen members.

Milkweed
Milkweed seeds await the combine at a native seed production field operated by Prairie Restorations near Glyndon, Minn.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

State and federal programs offer incentives to plant pollinator habitat. The federal Conservation Reserve Program added such an option in 2011 and Minnesota now has 647 acres enrolled, up from just 12 acres in January.

Minnesota is also part of a new USDA pilot program to encourage landowners to add pollinator habitat to land already enrolled in the reserve.

Those programs are causing a lot of landowners to think about creating more diverse native landscapes, said Mike Ratzlaff, who runs Carlson Prairie Seed Farm in Lake Bronson in Minnesota's northwest corner. He's noticing a shift in interest.

"There's been a strong emphasis put on the pollinator problem, the bee problem, in the nation by both federal and state agencies. We've been receiving more phone calls in the past 12 months than we ever have."

Jim Johansen
Jim Johansen, the native seed production manager for Prairie Restorations, jumps down from a truck after checking seeds collected from a nearby field near Glyndon, Minn.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Under the Conservation Reserve Program, USDA pays half the cost of establishing pollinator habitat on qualified land.

But money is only part of answer. Expanding habitat takes financial incentives and landowner commitment, said Eric Lee Mader, pollination program co-director for the Xerces Society a national conservation group working to expand habitat for bees and butterflies.

"They're typically still paying a little bit of something out of pocket to do that," he said. "These landowners typically wouldn't be making that personal investment if it wasn't something they were also pretty engaged in."

Mader says the trend toward creating more diverse native landscapes is happening not just in Minnesota, but across the country.

Insects that collect pollen need a diverse landscape, fewer grasses and a lot more flowers.

A combine harvesting seeds
A combine harvests Big Bluestem and milkweed seeds from a field managed by Prairie Restorations near Glyndon, Minn., on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Minnesota Landscapes is currently building up seed stock of Meadow Blazing Star. It's a plant that's been relatively unused in prairie habitat restoration, but is favored by Monarch butterflies. It takes about three years to expand seed stock for a native plant.

It's important to have a strong supply of Minnesota-grown seeds, Fredrick said.

Native plant genetics vary based on where they grow, so it's best to plant seeds harvested from Minnesota prairies. In fact some government agencies require locally sourced seeds.

A trip to the Prairie Restoration farm, though, shows native seeds are not easy to harvest. 

A 1970s vintage combine moves slowly through the field. When Johansen grabs a handful of the harvested seed it's full of stems and chaff.

"We bring all this stuff into the bin with the combine," he said, "And then we'll spend all winter cleaning that seed down to a finished product."