Pollinator Conservation Program Digest – December 2018

Select updates from our team of restoration ecologists, entomologists, plant ecologists, and researchers.

The Xerces Society manages the largest pollinator conservation program in the world. We work with farmers, gardeners, land managers, agency staff, and others to create habitat for bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects—and hundreds of thousands of acres of flower-rich habitat have been planted. We also offer certifications: Bee Better Certification for farmers and food companies who are committed to supporting pollinator conservation in agricultural lands, and Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA certifications for cities and schools dedicated to making the world safer for pollinators.

With staff based in more than a dozen states, and offering a diverse array of expertise, it can be challenging to summarize the impactful work being done by our team of restoration ecologists, entomologists, plant ecologists, and researchers. Therefore, we have compiled select pollinator conservation program updates into this monthly digest. December’s featured staff hail from Iowa and Minnesota, and have been making significant impacts in their respective states by educating farmers and other members of the public, helping to restore and build new habitat, and pushing for policies that support pollinators and other beneficial insects.


Establishing a Xerces Presence in Iowa

Sarah Nizzi, Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner and NRCS Partner Biologist

When people think of Iowa, generally their first thought is agriculture—specifically corn. I must admit, as someone born and raised in Iowa, that is not inaccurate. According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, about 73 percent of Iowa’s land is used for agricultural production (you can read the full assessment here). Iowa is not typically thought of as having “wild” spaces, but we are more than just an agricultural state. Iowa has many diverse landscapes and ecosystems. I have been working hard to help conserve our existing habitat and help others construct new habitat.

In July I was hired by the Xerces Society as a Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Partner Biologist. It is my responsibility to help interested farmers and landowners implement pollinator habitat on private lands. I do this by providing technical and financial assistance through federal, state, and local programs. I also provide guidance to NRCS staff on native seed mix designs and pollinator habitat considerations. Education and outreach is a large aspect of my job, as well.

In an agriculturally dominated state, conservationists have a unique challenge: How can we support profitable agricultural and rural communities, and support healthy wildlife populations and clean water and soil? To face this challenge, it is crucial to build relationships between the agricultural and conservation communities. We are all experiencing challenges with the effects of climate change, decreasing corn and soybean values, multiple species declines, and the potential listing of the monarch butterfly, just to name a few. The only way we are going to move forward is by working together.

The annual Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, conducted by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and other partners, focuses on topics important to farmers and agricultural stakeholders in the Midwest. In 2016, survey results showed that 81 percent of farmers were aware of the decline of monarchs, 65 percent of farmers are concerned about monarch population declines, and 41 percent were willing to learn more about how to improve monarch habitat (you can read more about the survey here).

Bottom line: Farmers are interested in making a difference, but cannot do so without our support. It is my job, and the job of many others in Iowa, to help bridge the gap between agricultural and conservation for a common goal. Everyone wants clean water and healthier soils, and luckily many of the conservation steps required to reach this goal also benefit our invertebrates and pollinators. I am excited to continue working on establishing pollinator habitat projects in Iowa and helping others to learn all they can along the way.

Prairie wildflowers

A Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) prairie planting flourishes in Jasper County, Iowa. This land is in its thirteenth year of a fifteen-year contract. (Photo: Michael Ware)


Developing Pollinator Conservation Policies in Minnesota

Sarah Foltz Jordan, Senior Pollinator Conservation Specialist, Great Lakes Region

Here in Minnesota, the majority of my Xerces projects are focused on pollinator habitat creation on farms—rather idyllic work for the most part, with the biggest obstacles typically coming in the form of weeds. Politics, on the other hand… whew.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to get my feet wet in the state’s political process while serving on the Governor’s Committee on Pollinator Protection (GCPP), a citizen stakeholder task force established by an executive order of Governor Mark Dayton in August 2016. As the first of its kind in the country, this governor-appointed committee helps advise the governor and state agencies on statewide pollinator protection efforts, and identifies opportunities for pollinator conservation improvements in our state.

The health and diversity of Minnesota pollinators are declining. While population changes in wild bees are difficult to document, existing data shows serious declines for many species. This includes at least six species of native bumble bees in Minnesota—most notably the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee, a once-common bee which has declined by 92 percent in relative abundance over the past decade.  The endangered Poweshiek skipperling, formerly one of Minnesota’s most common prairie butterflies, has recently experienced a population collapse leading to its complete disappearance from the state. Similarly, the Dakota skipper and Karner blue butterfly are barely hanging on in Minnesota and elsewhere. A total of 33 species of butterflies and moths in Minnesota are classified as species of greatest conservation need, a designation that is reserved for species that are rare, declining, and/or facing serious threats.

The fifteen of us who were selected to serve on the pollinator protection committee represent a wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints, including representatives from Minnesota farmer groups, the pesticide industry, the landscaping industry, beekeepers, educators, researchers, restorationists, and pollinator advocates. While the committee didn’t agree on everything (to put it Minnesota-nicely), our differences pushed us to be realistic in terms of developing ideas that are likely to move forward through the state legislature and encounter minimal opposition.

We recently released a report summarizing our recommendations, including habitat, pesticide, and education goals. Many of our recommendations focus on neonicotinoid insecticides, due to their high toxicity to pollinators, unique exposure routes, and increasing prevalence in both agricultural and urban/suburban landscapes. In agriculture, we highlight the need for strong, well-funded programs that provide farmers with financial and technical support to make their farming practices more pollinator-friendly. For example, our top priority pesticide recommendation calls for a program to provide financial assistance to farmers who choose to move away from corn and soybean seed treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Another top recommendation recognizes that pesticide overuse is not just a rural issue—calling for the restriction of sales of consumer neonic products, which are mainly sold in urban and suburban areas. Habitat improvements are needed in both urban and rural areas; one top recommendation calls for a new state program focused on the conversion of turf-grass to pollinator habitat, in the form of native wildflower plantings, shrubs, rain gardens, and bee lawns.

As the Dayton administration draws to a close, we call on our incoming governor Tim Walz, along with the Minnesota state legislature, state agencies, and other decision-makers, to use our recommendations to prioritize and enact meaningful changes for pollinators. The ongoing and unsolved pollinator crisis is one of the biggest agricultural, economic and environmental issues the incoming administration faces. Our committee has set out a strong, practical game plan for beginning this work. The vast majority of the recommendations were backed by the majority of our group, representing a diverse cross-section of Minnesotans. Now it’s up to policymakers to put them into action.

The Minnesota Governor’s Committee on Pollinator Protection visiting Kimber Contours Farm

The Minnesota Governor’s Committee on Pollinator Protection visiting Kimber Contours Farm, an organic grain farm near Northfield, MN. In addition to having native perennial habitat, the diverse crop and cover crop rotation on this farm offers abundant forage for pollinators, and also a safe haven from pesticides. (Photo: Xerces Society / Sarah Foltz Jordan)


Further Reading

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program.

Check out last month’s Pollinator Conservation Program Digest!


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