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Bee proud: Minnesota is among the best at protecting pollinators

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A bumblebee climbs into a rose
A bumblebee climbed into a rose in Rhonda Fleming Hayes' yard to begin buzz pollination.
Euan Kerr | MPR News 2016

A new study puts Minnesota among the leaders nationally in addressing concerns about bee and butterfly populations. 

University of Missouri professor Damon Hall analyzed every pollinator law passed by a state legislature between 2000 and 2017. 

He found that legislatures were taking what he called  "nascent and anemic steps in addressing a pollinator health crisis." And while no state legislature offered a stellar example of responding to pollinator population decline, Hall said, the efforts of a few states stood out.

"I would put Minnesota, California, Connecticut and Vermont among the leaders," he said. "And what I see is they're creating infrastructure and task forces and bodies to investigate insect pollinator health and insect pollinator conservation, but they're also generating funding mechanisms and appropriating funds to increase the capacity to do so."

A bee gathers pollen from a flower in a field near LaMoure, N.D.
A bee next to a flower in August 2017 in a field near LaMoure, N.D.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2017

Minnesota, he said, has done a particularly good job of setting up programs to increase pollinator habitat and fund pollinator research.

Pollinator habitat has declined for many reasons, including urban development and more intensive agriculture that focuses on corn and soybean production. That means fewer areas with flowering plants to provide the food bees and butterflies need to survive. 

"I have been telling people for years that Minnesota is doing more than pretty much any other state for pollinators, and so it's exciting to see that that's been substantiated," said Willa Childress, an organizer for the Pesticide Action Network that lobbies at the State Capitol. 

In 2016, then-Gov. Mark Dayton established a committee to oversee pollinator protections and advise his administration on pollinator policy. Childress said she thinks the committee's work has created relationships among diverse groups from farmers to beekeepers to environmental groups that are helping move legislation. 

"I am hoping that this momentum lasts and that it's not just a short burst," she said."Because many of the policies that we're looking at this year are bipartisan, generally farmer-friendly, many of them are first steps."

Hall noted a trend of increasing awareness among state lawmakers across the country over the 17 years of legislation he analyzed.

"I think this is related to the public's interest in this issue and concern about this issue," he said. "And so, for lawmakers to recognize insects are beneficial to crops, to our food production, to food security — that is hopeful and we see that in the policies."

He found that state lawmakers across the country passed 109 pieces of pollinator-related legislation from 2000 to 2017, and Congress considered 31 bills in that same time frame — but passed only four.

That led Hall to conclude that most of the policy response to pollinator decline is coming from states. He wants his study to be the start of a deeper look at how states can create public policy that's a catalyst for action to help bees, and share successful policy.

While Minnesota is near the top of states in legislative pollinator protections, Childress said she thinks the most contentious issues around pollinator health — including the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, which are widely used and known to be harmful to bees — haven't yet been addressed.

"I think we're always lagging behind on pesticides," she said. "You see strong measures being taken to increase habitat across the state, and that's really great. But it's also really frustrating because we're at such a moment that if we're not willing to act on the most controversial of the contributors to pollinator declines, we won't be able to reverse them."

Dayton's pollinator task force recommended, among other things, reducing neonicotinoid use and expanding habitat programs. Several bills related to pollinators have been introduced this year at the legislature.

Hall's pollinator policy analysis was published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy.

Correction (March 5, 2019): The school where professor Damon Hall works was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.