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'Bee Atlas' aims to promote healthy bee populations

Kevin Williams from the University of Minnesota Extension speaks at the Minnesota Bee Atlas Workshop, held Wednesday at Bemidji State University. (Joe Bowen | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI, Minn.—Kevin Williams pointed at a large white strip in central California on a map of the United States. The strip, in contrast to larger, bluer swathes of the map, indicated that there was a low abundance of wild bees there.

"That's where the almonds are growing," Williams, a facilitator from the University of Minnesota Extension, said as some attendees at Wednesday's "Bee Atlas" at Bemidji State University nodded. Many of the bee-sparse areas, Williams noted, corresponded to places with a lot of agriculture—up the Mississippi River, and into Illinois, Ohio, the Dakotas and Greater Minnesota—and beekeepers across the country can make a hefty sum strategically transporting their bees to pollinate crops there, but that also makes it easy for diseases to fester and spread. "Everybody's being moved into this very tight little space."

The workshop included a handful of presentations on the ecology of Minnesota bees, ways residents can identify bees and support healthy bee populations, and some hands-on lessons, too. The bee atlas is four-year "citizen science" study run by the extension and funded by a grant from the Minnesota's Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, and Program Coordinator Britt Forsberg said it uses aims to get a baseline reading of the state's bee population.

"We're doing research by using the interested and enthusiastic public as our volunteers, which allows us to have a much greater reach," Forsberg told the Pioneer. An array of plants native to the region rely on bees to pollinate them, but Erika Bailey-Johnson, the university's sustainability director, said there isn't a good repository for native bee information.

"We wouldn't have a lot of the options that we do at the grocery store and in our produce section if it weren't for bees," Bailey-Johnson said. "A lot of us would have issues with our garden if it weren't for bees. A lot of our local plants, a lot of our flowering plants, are pollinated by native pollinators."

The worldwide bee population has steadily dropped over the past several years, and Williams presentation pointed to research indicating that habitat loss, emerging diseases, pesticide use, and climate change are threats to bee biodiversity and causes of their decline.

Bailey-Johnson said she advocates planting more habitats for native bees, and that the bee population is suffering because there isn't a lot of biodiversity in the regional landscape.

"I hope we all go away with something we can personally do and something we can do in our communities," she said of the workshop.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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