Our Bee Colonies Aren’t Collapsing. Yet
A new project will add wildflowers to local farms. Are wildflowers enough?
By Patrick Sullivan | April 13, 2019
If the Farmland Pollinator Protection Project is successful, it will offer some of the region’s fields two benefits for the price of one.
It will bolster habitat for bees, a population that’s been under stress lately, while at the same time create acres of dazzling wildflowers that bloom throughout the spring and summer.
The Grand Traverse region was selected for the five-year project, overseen by the American Farmland Trust and to be implemented by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Kaiser & Associates and Michigan State University Department of Entomology.
ALREADY PLANTED, BUT FUNDS NEEDED
Here’s how it works: First, MSU researchers conducted studies to determine which plants the region’s pollinators — bees and other insects — prefer.
“They used these little Shop-Vacs, and they sucked the insects off the plants, and then they counted to see which are honey-bees, which are commercial honey bees, which are native insects, and which ones are maybe pest predators,” said Vic Lane, senior conservation project manager at GTRLC.
Data collected from those experiments led the team to assemble a mix of plants that could be planted in the area and would bloom throughout the growing season.
“We were able to use some of that data to create a mix that will provide pollen and nectar throughout the entire season,” Lane said.
Next, calls went out to farmers and large landowners to sign up for the project. In exchange for pledging a single plot a land for five years, the farmers are compensated for the cost of participating. They also get the advantage of ensuring they’ve got pollinators working on their property.
When GTRLC reached out to landowners, Lane said the sales pitch went like this: “We said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in this program? We want to install this habitat. We’ll pay for the installation. You have some obligations to maintain this over a period of time, but we’ll pay you two-hundred bucks an acre per year to maintain this habitat, which in many cases will benefit you — your gardens, your farms, your whatever, but it also services the community, not just ecologically, but also the pollination services for all of those fruit crops out there.’”
Initially, 30 landowners were interested, but not all of them owned land that qualified for the program. Twenty landowners met the criteria; they all applied and were accepted.
The program is in its early stages, however. Lane said they’ve only been able to fund some of the participants. So far, four participants have been seeded, representing over 15 acres. They are going to have to get more support before they can expand the program to all 20 participants.
“We’ve only been able to fund a fraction of those people,” he said. “So, we have 40 acres of seed that we’ve been looking to plant, but we now need additional funding. We need to find businesses that will support the work that we do.”
A PREVENTATIVE APPROACH
One thing that’s unique about the program is the way the fundraising sales pitch is designed. The program isn’t looking for donations, according to the program’s website. They are looking for “investors” — even if this isn’t a traditional investment with a traditional kind of return.
That approach is intentional, Lane said. That’s because the investment is in the creation of a healthier environment for growing crops. Lane said the organizers plan to solicit funding from businesses that benefit from the region’s fruit economy.
Some businesses, like sellers of cherry pies, are obviously connected to the pollinators. Other businesses, like winery tours, are less directly linked, but depend on the pollinators in other ways.
“A lot of these wineries we have on the Old Mission Peninsula and elsewhere, they’re looking out over views of other orchards, too,” Lane said. “The actual wine operation, the grapes may not require it, but some of the operations benefit from the views of those orchards, that do require it.”
Another expected benefit of the habitat — which will take three years to develop and establish itself — is that it will benefit a variety of insect populations, including pest predators. That could reduce the need for pesticides and create a better ecosystem balance. The program is also expected to offer richer habitat for monarch butterflies.
“The ecological concept is that if you have a system, the system has a bunch of checks and balances, and it supports itself,” Lane said. “But when you’ve oversimplified the system, and you have a particular crop here, and the habitat is there to support the insects that are needed to control those pests, there might be something out of balance there.”
Lane said the program was not established out of concern that the region’s bee populations are collapsing. The bee population, he said, is under stress, and the pollinator protection program is meant to see that things don’t become worse.
“I would say that this program is really more about a preventative approach rather than a reactive approach in our region — recognizing the pattern and the concern and figuring out if there’s a solution here that we can implement before it becomes necessary,” Lane said.
“ALL MY BEES ARE LEAVING”
Some people are more concerned about the current state of the bee population. Traverse City’s Garth Ward has been beekeeping since 2005, when a bad accident forced him to get out of construction. Ward dedicates himself to saving beehives that would otherwise be destroyed. He is an expect at removing them from houses and relocating them to his “bee sanctuary.” He’s got a big yellow truck marked with black letters: “Swarm Trooper.”
Ward began beekeeping just as reports of colony collapse disorder started to make the news and concerns were raised about the effects of pesticides, lack of food, and climate change on bees. He said he’s watched the life of the bees he takes care of become more precarious over time.
Ward said he doesn’t understand what’s going on.
“They say different years are different, and, yeah, different years are different, but all of a sudden the bees started disappearing,” Ward said.
There are hundreds of acres around Ward’s property west of Traverse City that should provide great habitat for bees, but he said that hasn’t been the case in recent years.
“All my bees are leaving my property to go find food, because there’s something wrong here with all my forage at my bee sanctuary,” he said.
He said there’s been a steady decline in the bee population over recent years. What’s more, the bees he does have aren’t doing as well.
Ward said he opposes pollinator programs like this one because he believes it merely offers cover for farmers who use pesticides that kill bees.
“Generally, this whole ‘pollinators’ thing has one thing in mind, which is: What do we do with your bees while we spread our poison?” he said. “My question to them is: Why aren’t we talking about what we’re spraying instead of where we put our bees?’”
“ASTOUNDING AND FRIGHTENING”
Brad Kik, co-founder and co-director of Crosshatch, a Bellaire-based nonprofit that promotes sustainability in northern Michigan, sees Ward’s point, but he said he supports habitat programs because they engage people and ask them to think about what’s going on, ultimately increasing the number of people who are following what’s happening to bees.
What farmers do to raise crops is complicated, and he said he’s reluctant to make blanket criticisms. Pollinator programs, at least, start a discussion.
“Creating more habitat doesn’t solve the problem of a bee getting killed by a pesticide, but it does get people into the space,” Kik said. “I’m a fan of any program that gets people thinking about it.”
He said he especially likes programs like the one GTRLC is engaged in because it focuses on a spectrum of pollinators rather than just one type.
Crosshatch works with local beekeepers and helps organize area beekeeping clubs.
Kik said the decline of the area’s bee population is disturbing. Kik said that over the past 15 years the area’s bee population has been in decline.
“I don’t remember it being that way when we got started 15 years ago,” he said. “This is astounding and frightening.”
Beekeepers begin to check their hives in April after they have been dormant for the winter. What many beekeepers have found in recent years has usually been grim, he said.
“What I’m hearing is that when people find hives, and the hives are healthy and alive, it’s almost miraculous,” Kik said.
PLANT MORE FLOWERS
Meghan Milbrath, academic specialist at the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University and coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative, said that since bee population declines are believed to be caused by multiple factors, including pesticide and poor nutrition brought on by lack of habitat, making improvements in one area, like nutrition, can offset damage from another, like pesticides.
A pollinator program like the one around Traverse City is designed to create habitat that will offer a pollination source throughout the season with a diverse selection of plants that take turns blooming.
Improving habitat to strengthen the health of bee population works in concert with smarter pesticide use, Milbrath said. She said not all pesticides are harmful to bees, and some pesticides can be made less harmful to bees if they are deployed properly and at the right time.
“Our philosophy is do what you can, where you can,” Milbrath said.
In many cases, she said, pesticides are a necessity of modern agriculture and without them, we wouldn’t have crops.
“There’s a lot of pesticides that are necessary, in order for people to protect their crops, that are low risk to bees,” she said. “Farmers can be responsible in the way they use pesticides. … I don’t like to get in the middle of telling farmers how to farm, because I know it’s very nuanced.”
Milbrath, though, said she believes it is a distraction to talk too much about pesticides. She said she believes people don’t give enough consideration to how modern life destroys bee habitat. Regular habits of otherwise conscientious people increasingly put strains on bees, she said.
“The loss of habitat for pollinators is so profound and most people are contributing to it, mowing lawns, managing their own land,” she said. “Having the presence of food makes all if it easier: Even if there is pesticide risk in that area, if they have proper nutrition, it helps them overcome that.”
In general, what people can do, she said, is plant more flowers. (To learn how to improve the pollinator habitat in your own yard, go to https://pollinators.msu.edu).
ORGANIC HABITAT COMING
The land conservancy isn’t just recruiting farmers to take part. They’ve signed up themselves and are planning to install pollinator habitat on their Maple Bay Farm property in Acme Township.
They are going one step further than the program, however: GTRLC plans to install its habitat without the use of herbicides, a complication that will make installation take four years rather than three years.
“We’re actually doing a demonstration out here of an organic installation,” Lane said. “This is kind of interesting to us, because there’s been a lot of talk about herbicides being used to prep these sites.”
Lane said the conventional manner of installing pollinator habitat begins by clearing an area with herbicides. A one-time dose of herbicide makes the plot a blank slate, but it comes with the stigma of poison.
“I think the thought of doing it that way is, the long-term benefit of having the habitat outweighs any potential risk of a single application of an herbicide,” he said.
But, Lane said, he’s not aware of any studies that have proven that, so the open question of what harm might come from herbicide made GTRLC decide to set out without it as a test case. Lane said he’s been working with agricultural consultants to come up with a plan to clear the land naturally with frequent tilling.
Going organic has downsides, too, however.
“It’s more labor intensive to do an organic protocol. It takes more time, it takes more fossil fuel. There’s a lot of considerations that go into something like this,” he said. “We’re disturbing the surface of the soil, which some people say it disrupts the fungal and bacterial interactions, so if you’re really trying to create soil habitat as well as plant habitat, is that the right thing to be doing?”
Another thing Lane wants people to know, if they are interested in seeing the fruits of the project and viewing acres of pristine wildflowers either at Maple Bay or at one of the other farms — is that it’s going to take a while and, until then, it won’t look like much.
“It takes three years to establish the habitat,” he said. Before them, “it’s going to look like a mess. It’s just going to be weeds. You’re going to think you made a mistake.”