New honey bee habitat plan announced by EPA

By Dr. Steve Payne
Journal Correspondent

A new federal government initiative to support honey bees and butterflies was recently announced. The plan calls for restoring seven million acres of bee habitat in the next five years. Numerous federal agencies are required to find ways to grow plants that are more varied and better for bees on federal lands.

The administration proposes spending $82.5 million on honeybee research in the upcoming budget year, up from $34 million now.

The EPA will also step up studies into the safety of widely-used neonicotinoid pesticides, which some scientists have linked to honey bee losses and which are banned in Europe. Many support this initiative, but some question whether funding to improve habitat and forage on federal lands, spread across the country, will make much difference in the Deep South.

Back in 2011, I tried to interest major timber company officials in a plan for both improvement of regional honey bee habitats and highway beautification. USDA entomologist James H. Cane had earlier suggested that planting wildflower "bee pastures" might be just the right prescription for curing the dwindling bee population epidemic. His idea was to plant pesticide-free flower fields to be a type of bee sanctuary for bees to multiply rapidly.

Timber companies have long faced some levels of criticism for clear-cut or full-harvest timber practices, particularly those sites near public highways. At the same time, corporations give back to their communities and constituents in many ways beyond their products and services. Social responsiveness and sustainability investments at some corporations can be as much as five percent of their pre-tax profits.

Average corporate expenditures in this category have been at about one percent of such profits. Timber companies are particularly known for their contributions to sustainability programs.

My proposal then was that one or a few large timber companies determine the number and location of timber sites that would be fully harvested in the near future and that are adjacent to highways having significant auto traffic in a particular state or region.

On a certain percentage of these sites, they might conduct normal full-harvest timber practices with one exception. That would to include in this replanting process an extensive seed scattering of native wildflower and bramble varietals with different bloom periods. Allowing a period of time for emergence of blooms from the first of these wildflower varietals, several honey bee hives in standard boxes/supers would be located within these fully-harvested areas.

County agents, 4-H and youth organizations, and area beekeeping associations could be approached for their assistance. Resources from the sale of honey could compensate young volunteers or the honey itself could be distributed to area shelters/charities.

Corporate sustainability programs such as this one would offer obvious benefits for bee and butterfly habitat improvement and also highway beautification. These programs could provide hands-on environmental knowledge and increased early employment opportunities for youngsters and teenagers. Expenses such as funds for purchase and cultivation of wildflower seeds, basic hive construction material and tools, and program administration seem well within the scope or allowance as part of many timber corporations normal spending on sustainability-related programs.

Although I received some support for this plan from timber-related corporate sustainability officers, there wasn't a particular timber corporation then that volunteered to adopt this particular proposal and program. I'm hoping that a few years and more publicity about declines in honey bee and butterfly habitats will spur one or several corporations to try this or a similar sustainability approach. I wouldn't be surprised if similar plans are being discussed, formulated or have been introduced lately. The combination of federal and corporate programs could make the Deep South a leader, rather than a follower, in producing real change and habitat improvement.