Political initiatives buzzing around the issue of pollinator health is one of three key legislative priorities the American Agri-Women organization decided to zoom in on this year, along with immigration reform and proposed clean water rules.

Political initiatives buzzing around the issue of pollinator health is one of three key legislative priorities the American Agri-Women organization decided to zoom in on this year, along with immigration reform and proposed clean water rules.

While in Oklahoma City for their mid-year meeting, the group held an educational session to learn more about the beleaguered honeybees and monarchs that are now showing up on posters in the D.C. subway system.

“After listening to the presentations, I realized that it’s at the top of the list in D.C.,” observed Donnell Scott, who is from Manhattan, Kansas. “It’s definitely a hot topic.”

Bee health has long been on the radar in places like California, where bees are trucked in to pollinate crops, but intense public interest has also begun to swarm around places like Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, participants said.

The groundswell has been quieter in the Central Plains but is growing there as well. The same week the women gathered in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Senate passed a bill directing the state agriculture department to develop a pollinator protection plan. Ag officials said they were acting pre-emptively based on an understanding that the federal government will eventually require all states to have one.

Farmers are beginning to feel the sting in the form of stricter pesticide application and registration procedures. “We found out about the increasing restrictions when we sprayed our alfalfa,” said Jean Goslin, of Dwight, Kansas. “The co-ops are aware of it, but that’s the first clue I had.”

Under scrutiny are modern crop protection tools, most notably neonicotinoids, or “neonics” for short. The treatments are applied to the seed so the active ingredients get transmitted systemically through the plant. Another way to think about their mode of action is similar to how a flea-and-tick collar works on a dog, according to Becky Langer-Curry, a microbiologist and project manager for bee health at Bayer CropScience, who gave a presentation to the group.

Seed treatments are widely used by farmers, credited with boosting corn yields by 6 to 14-bushels an acre.

“In soybeans, it’s harder to prove their effectiveness in some geographic areas. But even if it’s just a 3-bushel boost, at $10 a bushel, that’s real money,” said Laura Wood Peterson, another speaker who is manager of government relations for Syngenta in Washington.

Peterson, an AAW member herself, grew up on a row crop farm near Macksville east of Dodge City, Kansas. She is married to Jess Peterson, another young ag lobbyist who represents several farm groups in Washington while engaged in ranching interests in Montana.

Neonics are already banned in Europe, but crops that rely heavily on seed treatments, such as canola, have suffered unusually high insect infestations as a result.

Crop protection companies insist that neonics are actually safer than older forms of pesticides. Putting them down with the seed is more precise, eliminating the risk of airborne drift, Langer-Curry said. The active chemicals are designed to concentrate in green parts of the plants that attract harmful bugs rather than in the flowers and pollen, she added.

Neonics are also important for controlling human pests like mosquitoes and bed bugs, because they break down quickly. The products are even being used to treat the parasitic mites that are devastating to bees. Still, concerns about neonics are leading to a patchwork of laws that vary between states, and pressure is mounting for retailers to reveal their use on food labels, Langer-Curry said.

“A complete ban is not an answer,” she said. “We need this control. It’s one factor, and it should always be used as labeled, but it’s not the cause of pollinator decline.”

The bee population first took a dive after World War II, a period when nearly everyone had a beehive in their backyard to make up for sugar rationing, Langer-Curry noted. While Colony Collapse Disorder disrupted an inordinate number of hives back in 2006, bee numbers appear to have leveled off since then.

Meanwhile, droughts, urbanization and decline of the Conservation Reserve Program, especially in the Northern Plains, have likely played a role by reducing pollinator habitat.

Along with bees and wild pollinators, monarch butterflies are also increasingly in the spotlight. A petition seeking to have the monarch listed as a federal endangered species was filed shortly before the holidays, Peterson said.

That’s problematic because the butterflies spend roughly a third of their life cycle outside the U.S. overwintering in Mexico. The monarch issue has also drawn renewed scrutiny to the widespread use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. Use of Roundup resistant crops is believed to dramatically reduce the milkweeds monarchs rely on.

Bayer, Syngenta and other crop protection companies have long invested in pollinator health programs that pre-date today’s concerns. One of Bayer’s most popular voluntary programs, “Feed A Bee,” partners with communities, farms and golf courses to establish 5 to 15-acre pollinator plots. The McCarty Dairy of northwest Kansas is one example of a prominent partner from the agricultural community.

The federal government wants to do more, however. Peterson is monitoring a directive issued by President Obama last year that requires federal agencies to create strategies for promoting pollinator health. As part of that effort, the government pledged $3.2 million in February to restore habitat from California to the Corn Belt.

“They are trying to work across agencies, and I like that,” Peterson said. “I think any duplication should be addressed.”

She compared the initiative to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a funding mechanism administered through the Natural Resource Conservation Service that provides matching grants on a competitive basis to strategic partners to help accomplish public goals.

“Trying to be collaborative in addressing these things is kind of this new wave in Washington,” she said. “It could expand. If it’s successful, expect to see more of this in the next Farm Bill.”