Montana’s Proposed “Pollinator Protection Act” Seeks to Help Save the Bees
By Austin Amestoy
UM Legislative News Service
University of Montana School of Journalism
Patty Sundberg remembers a time early in her 40-year career in beekeeping when a 5% annual colony loss felt like a big deal.
Now, she said it’s all her company can do to hold that rate at 20% -- though, on bad years, it can swing even higher.
In the mid-2000s, word of a frightening trend in bee populations began circulating in the scientific community: entire colonies of bees were dying off at stunning rates. Dubbed “colony collapse disorder,” some beekeepers were reporting hive losses as high as 30% to 90% during the 2006-2007 winter. The news rang alarm bells over the future of the world’s food supply, should honeybee and other pollinator populations continue to decline -- the United Nations reports that three-quarters of the world’s food crops rely on pollination of some kind.
“When the [colony collapse disorder] news came out, beekeepers noticed it sooner than that, but kept thinking, ‘What are we doing wrong?’” said Sundberg, who owns Sunshine Apiary near Columbus, Mont. “But it’s what’s happening in the environment all over that’s changing.”
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that annual colony loss averaged 39% over the last decade, and Sundberg knows that she and other beekeepers won’t be in business forever unless concerted action is taken. That’s why she joined forces with her cousin, Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, to craft House Bill 410, dubbed the “Pollinator Protection Act.”
As lawmakers in the 67th Montana Legislative Session fixate on responding to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pollinator Protection Act is focused on addressing a different global crisis: the rapid loss of honeybees and other pollinators critical to farmers, biodiversity and maintaining a stable food supply. Though Olsen and Sundberg know the bill won’t solve the problem on its own, there’s hope from insect experts and beekeepers that it just might help keep Montana’s skies and fields abuzz.
Apiaries and Agriculture
HB 410’s specific form is in flux as Olsen and Sundberg work with opponents of the bill to tweak its language in the hope of winning them to their side, but both have made clear it will do one primary thing: bring Montana’s state agencies together to coordinate their pollinator protection efforts. The bill asks that state agencies like the Department of Transportation, Department of Agriculture, and others form a “pollinator protection plan” as part of their usual weed management and re-seeding duties. If a plan is formed, those departments will have access to state funds to seed plants that are “friendly” to Montana’s native pollinators, which don’t just include honeybees, but also other bugs, birds, bats and other animals capable of spreading pollen.
The bill debuted in the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, March 16, where it drew several opponents from agriculture organizations who expressed concern that it went too far: in its original form, it would have banned the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, one of the most popular methods for treating seeds against pests in the agriculture industry.
State entomologist Alyssa Piccolomini has been registering and inspecting the state’s more than 500 beekeepers and their 260,000 colonies for three years, and she said she believed the last time the Department of Agriculture dealt with a pesticide complaint from a beekeeper was 2007. She attributes the mostly smooth sailing to work done to improve communication and collaboration between beekeepers and farmers, including the implementation of the “Managed Pollinator Protection Plan” over the last decade. That plan set best practice policies for beekeepers and farmers on how and when to apply pesticides and where to locate bee colonies.
Piccolomini said Montana is right in line with nationwide averages for annual colony loss -- about 35%. She attributed the state’s struggle with pollinator decline to a number of issues, including viruses, loss of habitat and the introduction of the bee-killing varroa mite to the United States in 1987.
Piccolomini added that she believed HB 410’s focus on seeding plants that provide shelter, nutrition and water for pollinators along highways and on state lands would serve as a good starting point for curbing the decline of bees.
“I think that’s all well and good, so long as they have a diversity of plants blooming in the landscape that aren’t all nectar plants, but also serve as shelter,” Piccolomini said in an interview. “Just like us, pollinators need food, water and shelter. Creating that in those habitats is a great thing for the state to focus on.”
Pollinator Price War
According to Statista, Montana ranked fourth in the nation in quantity of honey produced in 2019, just behind California and the Dakotas. One commercial beekeeping operation contributing to that effort is Smoot Honey Company in Power, Mont.
Mark Jensen has been beekeeping since 1995 and became co-owner of Smoot Honey in 2007. Today, his company manages 5,000 to 5,500 colonies each year.
Unlike Sundberg, who moves her bees to California during the winter for almond season, Jensen purchases new bees by the pound each year. In 1995, Jensen said two pounds of bees went for about $8 when bought in bulk. This year, he paid $80 for the same amount.
“I get it, because everyone has to make money,” Jensen said in a phone call. “At some point, you need the bees, so you just pay what you need to pay and hope that they make a crop.”
Jensen attributed the spike to a number of factors, including increased interest in beekeeping, but noted that decreasing colony survival rates are contributing, too. Since his operation receives fresh bees each season, he doesn’t have to deal with varroa mites to the extreme year-round beekeepers do, but he said they’re still a nuisance that requires constant treatment.
“Eventually, everybody’s taking a turn having a big loss,” Jensen said.
A Unified Approach
But the core concept of HB 410 -- increasing the prevalence of pollinator-friendly plants in the state -- excites him as much as it does Sundberg and Piccolomini. Jensen said his bees rely on plants like clover and alfalfa for forage and nutrition, but increased monoculture farming and blanket-spraying of weeds along highways has made it more difficult for bees to find that forage. Nationwide efforts to decrease annual colony loss through increased habitat and forage would also help keep the price of bees down.
“We’ve been kind of hoping for that for years,” Jensen said.
Olsen looked to address the weed-spraying issue by working with Missoula County weed district manager Bryce Christiaens during the drafting of HB 410. Under the bill, weed management districts must join in pollinator protection plans with state agencies to ensure that they re-seed areas sprayed for weeds with pollinator-friendly plants.
In an interview, Christiaens said the bill is in line with a recent shift in weed district duties to include providing land and wildlife management support to property owners, farmers and ranchers.
“[HB 410] would be embracing a more integrated management approach where you’re focusing on removing the bad weeds while focusing on the desirable species you want out there,” Christiaens said.
Ultimately, Rep. Olsen said a unified approach is the centerpiece of her bill, which won’t be voted on in the committee until she finishes conversations with beekeepers, farmers, state agencies and weed districts to draft an amendment that can bring as many stakeholders to the table as possible. She said that amendment will remove the prohibition of neonicotinoid insecticides, which she hopes will bring more agriculture groups on board.
“We’re really at a crisis point,” Olsen said, reflecting on the steep losses of pollinators in recent years. “Even the opposition said how important it is to protect pollinator habitat. This gives them another tool in the toolbox.”
Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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