MONTEVIDEO - Minnesota is taking steps no other state has yet taken to address the plight of the more than 3,500 species of insects that pollinate most of the state’s flowers and many of food crops, from apples to zucchini.
It’s no longer legal in Minnesota to place “pollinator friendly” or “butterfly friendly” labels on flowers sold in the state if they contain neonicotinoids, a pesticide that can impair or kill bees and other pollinators.
Minnesota has also stepped ahead of other states with new legislation that requires that any lands acquired, or restored, using state funds include pollinator-friendly habitat.
The state has created the first ever “rapid-response team’’ to respond to bee kills. A team led by Dr. Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota or other teams as designated by the Department of Agriculture will respond as quickly as possible to determine the cause of significant bee kills.
And if they determine that pesticides are the cause, and they were applied according to label requirements, the state has created a fund to compensate beekeepers for their losses.
All of the new legislation has come with strong, bipartisan support, according to Representative Rick Hansen, DFL-South Saint Paul. Hansen outlined the legislation to an audience Friday at the Clean Up the River Environment office in Montevideo. He was joined by Representatives Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, and Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock.
“This is something that actually brings Minnesotans together,’’ said Hansen of the pollinator policy. “We are leading again like we used to, and we are leading with science.’’
Some of the science is only starting. New legislation includes funding to complete a baseline survey of native pollinators in the state. The last time the state surveyed the populations of native pollinators - everything from native butterflies and bees to flies - was in 1917, he said. And some of those pollinators, such as the Poweshiek skipperling, a small butterfly, are disappearing.
New legislation is aimed at simply preserving pollinator species that are in trouble. It includes funding to help the Minnesota Zoo maintain populations of native pollinators such as the Poweshiek on its grounds.
The losses that commercial and hobby beekeepers are seeing in their colonies are causing much of the concern that is driving the legislation. And yet, Hansen said that in 2003 the Legislature eliminated an apiary program that inspected hives and allowed the Department of Agriculture to quarantine infected hives.
Now, the Department of Agriculture is looking at whether the state should reinstate the program.
The Department of Agriculture is also looking at whether Minnesota should join Oregon in placing restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids. Their widespread use in many crops is believed to be one of the factors adversely affecting pollinator populations.
Parasites, pesticides, poor habitat and poor nutrition are all contributing to the plight facing pollinators across the state today, Hansen said. The state’s initial focus is on improving habitat, and more is to come. He said protecting pollinator-friendly plants in road ditches is an area where some are now looking to make progress.
Despite the new legislation, the state is not making the progress needed to address the crisis facing pollinators, according to many in the audience. Among them was Tom Kalahar, who has worked for 36 years on conservation programs with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Kalahar said the steps taken so far are the easy ones. He told Hansen it’s time to do the “heavy lifting” and take on the more difficult challenges. He also urged the legislators to provide more funding for conservation programs that work for agricultural producers.
Hansen said that he too would like to see more done, but pointed out the challenges as well. There are many who would repeal what’s been done to date “if they get the chance,’’ he told his audience. “You have to be an optimist in this job and you have to be able to make progress,’’ he said. “I understand your frustration on this. We’re trying to make those gains.’’