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Bees: What's all the buzz about?

The audience arriving to learn about “Bees: What’s All the Buzz About?” departed the League of Women Voters’ forum Saturday with a wealth of information on bees and butterflies – and the challenges the winged pollinators face.

     Department of Natural Resources entomologist Crystal Boyd shared her expertise on her specialty – bees.

     Author and photographer Rhonda Fleming Hayes imparted down-to-earth wit and wisdom on her studies of all things garden and its inhabitants.

     “Pollinators sustain the ecosystem,” Boyd reminded the audience. “Without them, we’d have a limited supply of fruits and vegetables.”

     One third of our food requires pollinators, she said, showing a photo of a grocery store abundant with produce, a second with several empty bins – the grim scenario if pollinators are not present.

     Honeybees, she told the audience, were introduced in the United States by settlers in the 1600s. “But 400 species of native bees in the U.S. had been pollinating long before the honeybees showed up.”

     Hummingbirds, bees, flies and beetles are among some of the original pollinators, as well as the night moth, that arrives in the moonlight. Bats prefer shallow flowers, the audience learned.

     Monarch numbers have been on a downward trend, 2013-14 the lowest, but made a modest gain last year, Boyd said of Minnesota’s state butterfly.

     Native bees and honeybees face similar challenges, Boyd said.

     Boyd has been conducting biological surveys in the state’s prairie region, 40 sites in western Minnesota.

     At the time of European settlement (mid-1800s) Minnesota had 18 million acres of prairie. Today only a little more than 1 percent (about 235,000 acres) of the original prairie remains, she said.

     Since 2007, Minnesota has lost more the 490,000 acres of grassland due to expiring Conservation Reserve Program land that has been converted back to row crop production.

     Honeybee populations have steadily declined in the U.S. since 1947 at a gradual rate, averaging 1 percent per year.

     Steeper declines have been recorded since 1987, but since the emergency of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) in 2006, commercial beekeepers have reported extraordinary losses averaging 29 to 36 percent per year.

     Such losses are unprecedented, according to the Pesticide Action Network, more than double than what is considered normal.

     Bees are frequently exposed to a “chemical cocktail” of pesticides used in homes and gardens and public lands. But the largest percentage of bee-harming chemicals is used in agriculture.

     Neonicotinoid (neonics) pesticides are the most widely used class of insecticides, which have been found to be acutely toxic to bees.

     But most scientists agree there is no single cause of CCD. Recent population declines are likely caused by a combination of factors acting in concert to weaken honeybee colonies to the point of collapse.

     According to a recent United Nations report, of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food over 70 are pollinated by bees. Wild pollinators like bats, butterflies and bumble bees are also facing catastrophic declines.

     Managed honeybees remain the most economically important pollinator, contributing $19 billion annually to the U.S. economy, according to the study.

     “Minnesota is far ahead of other states,” Boyd said of moving toward a “pollinator action plan.”

     Conservation goals will be “monarch focused,” she said. “Farming practices will be under review.”

     And Minnesota’s government agencies will be asked to come together to protect butterflies and bees.

     Her advice to enhance bees’ and butterflies’ life on the planet:

     Plant native wildflowers.

     Avoid pesticides.    

     Provide nesting habitat.

     And advocate for pollinators.

     “Now is time.”

     Boyd suggested county and city officials become engaged advocates for the winged creatures.