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The Buzz on MSP's Growing Pro-Pollinator Community

MSP's increasing public awareness about the plight of pollinators has mobilized beekeepers and gardeners, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, educational institutions and government representatives to create new initiatives on behalf of bees and butterflies.
Even in sudsy Northeast Minneapolis, the heart of MSP’s still-raging craft beer boom, most taprooms shut their doors till noon on weekends. The sight of craft-happy patrons clinking glasses and quaffing brews at 10 in the morning is enough to raise more than a few eyebrows.
But any time is a good time to clink glasses and quaff brews for a good cause, according to Fair State Brewing Cooperative’s three civic-minded founders.
In late July, the Fair State team hooked up with the Minnesota Zoo and Kabomelette to host its first-ever Butterfly Brunch, a casual breakfast aimed at raising awareness about the vanishing Dakota skipper, a colorful pollinator whose western Minnesota prairie habitat continues to disappear under the plow.
Head brewer Niko Tonks dreamed up a “dry, farmhouse style” ale brewed with native prairie grass pollen (the ale is available for a limited time at select MSP bars and restaurants), Kabomelette provided delicious brunch fare, and zoo staff held forth on the importance of preserving pollinator habitats. A good time was had by all.
Fair State’s collaboration with the Minnesota Zoo is just one small example of an encouraging, long overdue trend: an increase in public awareness about the plight of pollinators and a corresponding mobilization among individual beekeepers and gardeners, social entrepreneurs like Kristy Allen of Beez Kneez, a hyperlocal honey producer and beekeeper education company; nonprofit groups like Pollinate Minnesota and Urban Roots; institutions like the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab and Bee Squad; and key government actors like the St. Paul Department of Parks & Recreation and Minneapolis City Council members Cam Gordon and Lisa Bender.
Already a hotbed for the urban agriculture movement, MSP has pressed farther down the pollinator-friendly path than many major metros. All in all, Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t a bad place to be a bee (or butterfly).
The case of the disappearing pollinators
Why do pollinators matter? According to the National Resources Defense Council, at least 30 percent of the world’s food supply and 90 percent of the planet’s wild plants rely on pollination by birds, bats, bees, butterflies and various other winged organisms.
In MSP, honeybees are particularly industrious, pollinating many of the native and non-native flowering plants that populate our green spaces. But during the past generation, more than 25 percent of the commercially managed honeybee population — and an unknown proportion of the wild population — has disappeared. Other local insect pollinators, like the Dakota skipper, are dying out too.
For the Dakota skipper and other specialized, wild pollinators, habitat loss is often the biggest threat. But for honeybees, it’s a newish class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Developed in the 1980s and 1990s, neonicotinoids are chemically similar to nicotine and, initially, were hailed for their relative safety.
“Neonicotinoids are far less toxic to mammals than the pesticides they replaced,” says Erin Rupp, Pollinate Minnesota’s director. “Unfortunately, they’re highly toxic for most insects,” including honeybees.
When foraging bees come into contact with neonicotinoid-treated plants, they usually don’t die right away. Instead, they fly back to the hive with the chemicals on or in their bodies, infecting their entire cohort.
In high doses, neonicotinoid exposure kills the hive’s population relatively quickly. Lower-level exposure weakens the hive over time, laying the groundwork for infestation by the ominously named verroa destructor mite, a bee parasite that originated in Asia. Verroa infestation is a death sentence; infected hives rarely last longer than two years, says Rupp. And in some cases, bees simply abandon a pesticide-tainted hive in a lemming-esque mass suicide — a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
In September 2013, Rupp and Beez Kneez founder Allen experienced a mass bee die-off firsthand. One morning, says Allen, a beekeeper who worked with Beez Kneez returned to her hive in Minneapolis’ Kenwood neighborhood and found “a pile of dead bees on the floor.” Allen and Rupp discovered one of Beez Kneez’s own hives, located at nearby Blake School, decimated as well. A subsequent Minnesota Department of Agriculture investigation fingered a common ant-killing insecticide applied somewhere in the area, though identifying the precise source proved impossible.
“Foraging bees fly up to two miles from the hive under normal conditions, and sometimes up to 10 miles when they’re stressed,” says Rupp. Bees’ intrepid nature makes it difficult to determine when and where they come into contact with harmful substances.
But some good came out of Beez Kneez’s pollinator tragedy. Rupp and Allen banded together to form Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives, an advocacy group that successfully lobbied the Minnesota State Legislature to enact laws requiring licensing for online pesticide buyers and “bee friendly” labeling for nursery plants not treated with harmful pesticides.
“Minnesota was one of just a handful of states that didn’t require licensing for people who purchased pesticides online,” says Rupp, “and the nursery labeling law was a major win for both consumers and pollinators.”
Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives remains active, putting on educational events around MSP. The initiative also led, albeit indirectly, to the formation of Pollinate Minnesota, which split off from Beez Kneez earlier this year and now focuses exclusively on education and advocacy.
“I wanted to put people in suits and provide real, experiential education about bees and beekeeping,” says Rupp, “and I fell in love with lobbying work after lobbying the Legislature [in 2013].”
Public and institutional initiatives take center stage
Along with social entrepreneurs and educators like Allen and Rupp, MSP’s most prominent public bodies are doing their part to support the region’s pollinators.
Back in 2009, Minneapolis legalized beekeeping on residential property within the city limits. Though restrictions on the practice aren’t outrageous, amateur beekeepers do need to complete a certification course at an approved local institution, secure the consent of all immediately adjacent neighbors, consent to regular inspections by Minneapolis Animal Care and Control, and maintain certain standards of control.
Last year, Minneapolis City Hall’s green roof got a new tenant: a lively honeybee hive. The “bees on city hall,” as they’re known, pollinate the roof’s flowers and look for forage on adjacent downtown lots.
Recently, Minneapolis went one step further: The full city council unanimously passed a sweeping resolution, authored by Gordon and fellow council member Linea Palmisano, declaring the city a “pollinator friendly community.” The resolution “takes credit for progress we’ve made already,” such as the hive on City Hall and the home beekeeping ordinance, says Gordon, and spells out future initiatives: phasing out pesticide use on city property, planting more bee-friendly forage on city-owned land and more.
At the U of M’s St. Paul campus, the nearly 100-year old Bee Lab continues to power pollinator research and support pollinator-friendly programs around MSP. Dr. Marla Spivak, the Bee Lab’s current director, specializes in a pressing area of inquiry: “bee health, specifically ways bees keep themselves healthy,” though her studies have “expanded to include native bees and landscape ecology issues, specifically how agricultural landscapes affect the health of honey bee colonies and the diversity and abundance of native bees,” Spivak explains.
The Bee Lab recently raised $6 million to build a new 10,500-square-foot facility near its current home. “The new facility will allow us to finally conduct our research and outreach programs from one consolidated facility, rather than having to run among various buildings, including the Entomology Building and our old (and condemned!) honey house,” Spivak wrote in a recent bulletin.
Some years ago, Spivak founded the Bee Squad, a Bee Lab outreach offshoot now run by Dr. Becky Masterman, an entomologist with deep ties to the U. The Bee Squad oversees a “mentoring apiary” that puts on weekly hands-on learning sessions covering various aspects of home beekeeping: installing new bees, keeping safe from stings, monitoring the queen and ensuring adequate food reserves. As part of a partnership with the city of St. Paul, Bee Squad staff are charged with maintaining a recently installed community apiary in Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. (Other groups help out with the Vento apiary as well; Urban Roots installed windbreak vegetation around the hives earlier this year, for instance.)
Back across the river, the Minneapolis Park Board is decreasing springtime pesticide applications and waiting to fire up the lawnmowers in some city parks. That’s because two ubiquitous early-season weeds, dandelion and clover, are actually prized by honeybees awakening from their winter slumber. Bees can’t access fresh nutrition during the cold season, so they’re often in a weakened state when the ice melts.
“When bees wake up from their months-long winter hibernation, they’re extremely hungry,” says Rupp. “Even though we view them as weeds, dandelion and clover are critical sources of food for fasting honeybees.”
The Park Board, with input from Pollinate Minnesota and other pollinator allies, is also exploring longer-term investments in pollinator-friendly, early-blooming perennials — notably fruit trees that could double as late-summer sources of fresh, healthy food for two-legged park users.
Setbacks and confusion
Unfortunately, Minnesota’s state government isn’t as progressive on pollinators as Minneapolis, St. Paul and the U of M.
Barely a year after it passed the “bee friendly” nursery labeling bill, the Minnesota State Legislature basically “amended it out of existence,” says Minneapolis City Council member Gordon. Facing statewide pushback from growers and nursery operators claiming the bill’s provisions were difficult to implement as written, the legislature narrowed the labeling requirement to plants treated with “acute kill levels” of specific pesticides.
“[The legislative change] is really detrimental and confusing to consumers,” especially coming so soon after the bee-friendly law’s initial passage, says Rupp. Rupp notes that even pesticide doses that fail to “outright kill” bees can weaken and eventually destroy colonies; over time, foraging bees exposed to nonlethal levels of neonicotinoid pesticides become disoriented and may fail to find their way back to the hive, starving colony-mates reliant on their harvest.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which enforces all pollinator-related laws and investigates mass bee deaths, also falls short at times. Though the MDA diligently investigated the September 2013 die-out that sparked Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives, this isn’t always the case.
“The MDA’s investigation process doesn’t serve beekeepers very well,” says Allen, noting that the department doesn’t have a large staff of bee experts and rarely prioritizes localized die-outs. Allen raised the issue with Governor Dayton after an “unsatisfactory” investigation involving a Beez Kneez site in outstate Minnesota; she’s still waiting to hear back.
“[The MDA] really only cares if an entire colony dies at once,” Allen laments.
Pollinator preservation is a community effort
For Allen, Rupp and the rest of MSP’s community of pollinator allies, this year’s legislative setback and state authorities’ mixed messaging on pollinator issues reinforce the need for pollinator-friendly individuals, businesses and local governments to collaborate and advocate for sensible political and environmental changes.
“Bees have thrived on our planet for millions of years,” says Allen. “If they can’t survive in the environment [humans have] created, something is terribly wrong.”
But MSP residents and business owners don’t have to don protective suits and handle beehives to do their parts. By supporting pollinator-friendly products and collectively making small, inexpensive lifestyle changes, the community can have a hugely positive impact.
For starters, Beez Kneez sources honey from eight different hive sites and sorts the finished product by ZIP Code, meaning consumers can “literally eat honey from their own neighborhood,” says Allen. Beez Kneez incorporates some of its honey crop into a growing line of “craft honey mustard,” too: The flagship Fleur de Beez is a Cajun-flavored creation, and a German-style horseradish mustard is on the way. Birchwood Cafe and the Minnesota Farmers’ Union are also getting in on the local honey craze with a spicy blueberry honey-cornbread muffin collaboration at this year’s Minnesota State Fair.
For aspiring beekeepers, Pollinate Minnesota offers beekeeping classes for people ages five and up; and Beez Kneez just launched Camp Beez Kneez, an immersive, 14-week summer program for beginner and intermediate beekeepers.
For property owners, Beez Kneez sells a pollinator-friendly gardening kit: a hexagonal plot filled with flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season. “The goal is to get more forage out there,” says Allen. “You don’t have to know anything about gardening or flowers to plant a bee-friendly garden with our kit.”
“As a social entrepreneur, I believe that individuals and business owners should do as much as possible to reduce their impact in every way that they can control,” Allen declares. In other words, top-down policy and public-private partnerships matter, but community-minded folks must be the change — and not wait for slower-moving institutions to take the first steps.
Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs News Editor.
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