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Dan Gunderson, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published January 16 2014

2 Minnesota agencies try to make a better life for bees

Two Minnesota state agencies are working on ways to make the environment healthier for bees.

In a report to the Legislature on Wednesday, the state Department of Agriculture will detail its plan to review the use of a popular insecticide linked to bee deaths. Meanwhile, the state Department of Natural Resources is developing guidelines to improve the habitat for pollinating insects.

The issue is also likely to be a hot topic during the upcoming Legislative session because pollinating insects are important to agriculture. In recent years, they have become victims of a perfect storm. There are fewer flowering plants on the landscape, which affects insect nutrition. Honey bees suffer from persistent disease problems. Another serious threat comes from the neonicotinoid insecticide.

In the last several years, more than a third of the nation’s honey bee population has died each year, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Protecting pollinating insects will be a daunting task, said University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak, who is working with a new team of university scientists looking for answers.

“I just spent the morning with a bunch of epidemiologists here on the chalk board,” Spivak said. “By lunch time they’re looking at this thing and going, ‘Oh my God, where do we begin?’ ”

Spivak said a growing body of scientific evidence shows that pollinating insects are affected by low levels of insecticide. But scientists still aren’t sure how much insecticide bees are exposed to as they travel from plant to plant.

The Legislature, which will consider funding some of the needed research, last year ordered the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to develop a process for reviewing the safety of widely used neonicotinoid insecticides, which are absorbed by plant roots, leaves and pollen.

Neonicotinoid insecticides are used to protect Minnesota crops like corn, soybeans and sugar beets. They also are commonly used in urban settings and in greenhouse plants.

State Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson also ordered a regulatory review of the insecticides.

The review could lead to changes in how or when the insecticide is used. Frederickson said changes will be made only if the science strongly proves a risk to pollinators.

Minnesota has authority to impose regulations that are more restrictive than federal Environmental Protection Agency rules.

Frederickson said neonicotinoids are safer for people than other types of insecticides, but the risk to beneficial insects can’t be ignored.

“In significant doses it would be harmful to pollinators, pollinator insects,” he said. “So we have to be able to learn how to manage that or otherwise we’re going to have to figure out a way to replace it.”

DNR officials are developing guidelines for managing habitat to best provide food and protection for pollinating insects.

Wildlife Habitat Program Manager Bob Welsh said new best management practices won’t bring major changes because the DNR already manages land to create diverse habitat. But it might mean changing when grassland is burned or mowed or adding more plants that are a good food source for pollinators.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about pollinators and we expect the BMP’s and restoration guidelines is going to be a living breathing document and change constantly as we learn new things,” he said.

For Spivak, the guidelines are a good start. She also wants to see financial incentives and enforcement to make sure the guidelines are followed