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On-farm conservation needed to boost beneficial pollinators

By Eric Lee-Mader and Mace Vaughan, The Xerces Society

New incentives are available to assist landowners who want to add more pollinator-friendly wildflowers like this to their Conservation Reserve Program land. Photo by Paula Kleintjes Neff, UW-Eau Claire and the Xerces Society

2014 has been a banner year for pollinators in the media and public policy. Almost daily, we look around amazed at the flood of news articles about bees: bee declines, bee-kill­ing pesticides, the tenuous econom­ics of commercial beekeeping, and countless other facets of our com­plex, intertwined relationship with pollinators.

Each of these stories elicits a call to action— including one really big call in June when Presi­dent Obama directed more than a dozen federal agencies to greatly expand their pollinator con­servation efforts.

Sadly, all this attention is justified. More and more research studies are showing pesticides’ devastating toll on bees. At the same time, we’re seeing a tidal wave of pollinator habitat loss in virtually every terrestrial landscape—including the conversion of around 9 million acres of grass-land, like CRP fields, to row crop production since 2007. The pollinators themselves are sounding the alarm. We’re witnessing the rapidly accelerat­ing and terrifying loss of some once-common bumble bee species and numerous butter­flies, including the federally endan­gered Karner blue which seems to have disappeared completely last year in both Min­nesota and Indi­ana. Wisconsin might hold the last viable popula­tion of this beauti­ful butterfly.

All of these factors make this a critical time for us to be working with dedicated and smart folks across the world on some remarkable pollinator conservation projects.

This is a moment in history when we really need every person possible to be conserving pollinators in the landscapes they manage.

Fall is a particularly good time to focus on pollinator conservation on the farm. Here are some ideas to help you ramp up pollinator conservation.

Get a Plan

For the past couple of years, the USDA Natu­ral Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has offered funding for custom pollinator and beneficial insect conservation plans. Called a “Pollinator CAP” (Conservation Activity Plan), the plan includes an on-farm consultation with a private (non-NRCS) pollinator biologist, and the development of a comprehensive farm blueprint that identifies baseline habitat conditions for pol­linators, and recommendations for conservation strategies that can increase their abundance.

Although not required by the NRCS, Pollina­tor CAPs can also include additional informa­tion such as step-by-step habitat installation guidelines for your farm, and a pesticide risk assessment, along with strategies for mitigating pesticide impacts. (For example, CAPs developed by Xerces ecologists include an assessment of any conventional and organic pesticides used on the farm, as well as an assessment of risks posed by neighboring farms).

One of the best things about the CAP process is that NRCS provides financial assistance to offset the cost of bringing this specialized con­sulting to your farm, resulting in minimal to no out-of-pocket expenses. Moreover, once the CAP is completed, you can use it to help apply for additional NRCS support for any recommen­dations made in the plan. For example, if the CAP recommends a native shrub hedgerow to increase pollinator habitat on the farm, you can take that recommendation back to your NRCS office and apply for additional assistance. To find out more about Pollinator CAPs, contact your local NRCS office.

Cool Season Cover Cropping

It’s no substitute for permanent areas of native wildflower habitat, but flowering cover crops can make a significant contribution to sup­porting pollinator populations on the farm. In a lot of areas, right now is the time to establish cool season, overwintering cover crops.

In cold climates, fall-seeded cover crop options are more limited than spring-seeded options. However, even a simple cold-hardy mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, and red clover can offer a boost of pollen and nectar on the farm next spring. These plants provide egg-laying locations for pol­linators, and host alternate prey for other benefi­cial insects such as lacewings, syrphid flies, and pirate bugs.

When you need to terminate the cover crop next year, consider the following strategies to reduce unintended harm to pollinators:

• Wait as long as you can to terminate the cover crop so that bees can use more of the pollen and nectar.

• Terminate with as little physical disturbance as possible. (For example, roller-crimping may be less disruptive to bee nests in the soil than cultivation.)

• Leave as much cover crop residue as possible to protect nests and any dormant adult bees (such as bumble bee queens).

• Minimize insecticide use (even organic insec­ticides!) in cash crops where cover crops were previously planted to avoid harming benefi­cial insect eggs or pupae that may be in the cover crop residue.

• Consider leaving a few small strips of the cover crop around the farm to remain flower­ing throughout the growing season.

Before planting cover crops, you should also know that current federal crop insurance pro­grams have region-specific requirements for cover crop termination. Those rules (intended to balance the water needs of cash crops with cover crops) typically require cover crop termination within a certain timeframe. For current guid­ance on cover cropping and crop insurance rules, consult your local USDA service center or crop insurance agent.

New Opportunities through CRP

In June of this year, the USDA announced $8 million in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) incentives for Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin farmers and ranchers who establish pollinator habitat. At the time of this writing specific details about the incentives are still forthcoming, however initial indications are that most funding will be directed toward further improving current CRP land with payments for inter-seeding additional bee forage plants into grass cover. Additional details should be available from local USDA Farm Service Agency offices.

In whatever form they take, these new incen­tives will further complement existing opportu­nities to create pollinator habitat through CRP, such as the “CP-42 conservation practice,” which offers enhanced payments and competitive appli­cation-ranking for landowners who plant high quality native wildflower seed mixes on new CRP land.

If you aren’t familiar with the CRP applica­tion process, you should know that there are two separate options for enrollment. The first is through a competitive process known as “CRP general sign-up.” Applications under the general sign-up are ranked against each other within regions to ensure that the new enrollments offer­ing the greatest environmental benefits are the first to be accepted into the program. General sign-ups are announced on a periodic basis and do not occur on any fixed schedule.

The second application process is through “continuous CRP sign-up,” which is available to landowners with extremely environmentally sensitive land such as land bordering stream banks. As the name suggests, continuous CRP sign-up is available on an ongoing basis and applications are not ranked on a competitive basis.

There are a host of other CRP rules and eli­gibility guidelines, as well as opportunities to implement some really good conservation prac­tices through CRP. Check with your local USDA service center for the latest information.

Resources for Grazing

Finally, we are thrilled to announce new staff and resources to help folks wanting to incorporate pollinator conservation into graz­ing systems. We’ve added a new ecologist to our team—Anne Stine. She recently joined Xerces after completing a fellowship with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska where she worked on managed grazing of native prairie. Anne is based out of the NRCS National Technology Support Center in Fort Worth, Texas. She is available to field nationwide inquiries and pro­vide advice on using conservation practices that balance the needs of livestock with pollinators. She travels nationally working with NRCS staff and individual farmers/ranchers, and can be reached at:

Among the projects that Anne is spearhead­ing is a soon-to -be released Xerces/NRCS tech­nical guide for incorporating pollinators into pasture and rangeland management. The guide, Using Grazing to Increase Pollinator Habitat in the Central U.S., is scheduled for release in late 2014. Readers can anticipate sections on the management of grass-forb diversity with graz­ing, the use of variables like timing, intensity, fire, and stocking rate to maximize wildflower abundance and livestock health. The manual will include considerations for specialty livestock beyond just cattle, such as sheep, horses, and goats. To access a free PDF version of the guide when it becomes available, please contact Anne at her email address listed above.

Eric Lee-Mäder and Mace Vaughan co-direct the Pol­linator Program at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Their newest book, Farming with Native Beneficial Insects, was just released this summer. It is available in the MOSES Store. They welcome feedback from Broadcaster readers: or

From September | October 2014 Issue

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