Now that harvest season has drawn to a close, farmers in Missouri are already thinking about next year’s crops, and their planting choices will affect more than their bottom line. The crops grown can help wildlife, including nature’s best pollinator, bees.
Bees are an important ally for collecting and distributing pollen and nectar to and from crops. The results are vital for so many of our popular foods. Soybean nectar is a major contributor to honey production across the Midwest. Vegetable and flower gardens, as well as alfalfa grown for seed, all need those little, buzzing bees.
And right now, bees are getting hit hard.
Last year, for example, American beekeepers reported losing close to 44 percent of their honey bee colonies. It’s a staggering loss considering beekeepers have historically been faced with drops of only 10 to 15 percent. Native bees are also disappearing. In Missouri alone, there are an estimated 450 species of native bees. These creatures serve critical roles as pollinators but are being overlooked and are consequently disappearing too.
One native bee species in particular that’s in need of greater attention is a type of longhorn bee, Melissodes intorta. This bee, characterized by its long antennae, enjoys poppy mallows, wine cups, and other flowers found in grasslands and prairies. In Missouri, the species is ranked vulnerable for extinction from the state, making prairies more important than ever for the bees’ survival.
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides that are particularly problematic for bees. “Neonics” can kill bees or inhibit their ability to effectively move or communicate and coat more than 50 percent of soybean seeds and 90 percent of corn seeds planted in the U.S. Simply getting uncoated versions can prove to be a challenge. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is known to alter bee gut bacteria, making it harder for them to fend off disease.
Farming practices might also prove to be the antidote to the decline of bees. The right conservation practices can increase yields while reducing other costs for fertilizer and pest management. Furthermore, conservation practices can significantly protect against soil erosion and nutrient loss, improve soil water uptake, and lower chemical inputs.
For instance, one of the most remarkable ways to improve current agricultural practices is by employing older farming methods that were once common practice. Extended crop rotations and cover crops are prime examples of beneficial practices that are finding their way back to more farms. These approaches offer numerous lasting benefits such as reduced soil erosion and improved soil nutrient holding capacity. And research out of Iowa State shows that extended crop rotations can help farmers dramatically reduce their use of chemicals (herbicides and synthetic fertilizers) by upwards of 90 percent.
Additionally, these practices also provide habitat for wildlife beyond pollinators. Small grain crops often grown in rotations, such as wheat and oats, provide great brood-rearing areas for pheasants and quail.
While farmers will tell you that changing their farming practices isn’t a snap of the fingers, there are resources just a phone call away that can make shifting farm strategies easier.
Planning and financial assistance for adopting these changes is provided in the Farm Bill. Your local USDA Service Center can assist in applying for and participating in these programs.
For example, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which are administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Farm Service Agency under USDA, can provide funding for farmers to employ these farming practices and achieve cleaner water, healthier soil, and habitat for bees and other wildlife.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler sits on the House Agriculture Committees. This is important. As farmers increasingly utilize these conservation programs, she can lead the way to work collaboratively to improve them.
Farmers are vital stewards of the land. But by considering pollinators during their planning for next year, they will be able to look out at miles upon miles of precious land and know their work is doing so much more. Not only will their efforts to create a more sustainable, less toxic environment, help their families, and feed Missourans, but it will also aid our communities and protect the natural world around all of us.
Bridget Sanderson is the director of Environment Missouri. Malia Libby is the conservation associate of Environment America.