Talk about the birds and the bees: Earth Day activities

Photo By USFS Even the Common American Robin is on some watch lists.

Earth Day was Monday, April 22. Add a chirp and buzz to your yard by helping birds and bees. The Montana list for Species of Concern for Birds (mt.gov) has some surprising species listed including Clark’s Nutcracker, the Black Rosy Finch, the Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, the Evening Grosbeak, the Loggerhead Shrike and Great Blue Heron. They are “at risk” due to declining population trends, threats to their habitats, and/or restricted distribution and may not be on federal lists. Montana Audubon stated in 2012 after forty years of citizen science info gathering there is an “alarming decline” nationally of “common” birds. All 20 birds on its Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their population including the Boreal Chickadee, the Little Blue Heron, the Snow Bunting, and the Evening Grosbeak. Another national study shows the common American robin and towhee in decline. Some populations fell up to 80 percent due to habitat loss and “environmental trends.” Its website lists citizen actions. Birds help us by spreading seeds and eating insects, not to mention their beauty and song. Meadowlarks and other grassland birds are decreasing because of suburban sprawl, industrial development, and mega-farms. Losses of wetlands, and riparian areas affect water birds. Audubon finds more temperate predators moving north, likely from global warming. Forest birds like the Chickadee face deforestation from increased insect and fire outbreaks and excessive logging, drilling, and mining. As for the bees, the annual value of honey bee pollination to US Agriculture alone is about $16 billion annually. Bees pollinate one-sixth of the world’s flowering plant species and 400 agricultural plants. To increase bee populations and yields we can manage bees to encourage good pollination. The destructive effects of the varroa mite, loss of wild bee nesting habitat, low world honey prices, Africanization of bees (aggressive but more resilient) and the use of pesticides make wild bee conservation imperative. Without bees, many flowering plants fail to set seed and without flowering plants, there is no food for bees. Leave field margins, ditches, roadside verges and woodland edges unsprayed with chemicals and undisturbed. Leave areas wild and encourage native plants. Pesticides may kill quickly or, worse, slowly. An insecticide may be “harmless” to bees but inhibit crop pollination by repelling bees. Bret Adee, the nation’s largest beekeeper said, “The national livestock production lists bees right up there in importance”. “If a disaster strikes, however, we get no farm bill relief, no help. All hybrid seeds need bees,” he said. “It’s bigger than most people think.” Adee lost 80 percent of his hives just south of Montana in WYO. He believes state and federal governments should grant schools money for bee research. “The EPA doesn’t fund any research or fully realize bees’ importance to food.” All species suffer in drought. “We had bees sitting on sunflowers in the upper Midwest where the drought hit hard,” said Adee. “There were also tremendous losses there, 60-100 percent losses of hives. Eastern South Dakota beekeepers had some 100 percent losses too.” He added, “the Dakotas use neonicotinoid compounds. Sunflowers get systemic seed treatment with the pesticides.” Bees add 15-30 percent to the crop yield and provide higher oil. “Pesticide salesmen are very aware of the ‘synergistic effects’ of combining pesticides,” he explained. “They’ll tell a farmer, just add pesticide A to pesticide B for a greater ‘kill rate.’” Adee is the American Honey Producers (AHP) representative with the National Honeybee Advisory Board. Adee said Congress needs to request the EPA to move the pesticide review date up from 2018 to help bees. Adee said, “I found the EPA surprisingly unmotivated to bring it up in schedule.” He implores people to contact their local congressman. Adee said fungicides can kill the good microbes, too. “If bees don’t have the microbes to break the hard shells of pollen, they cannot digest it.” He noted the relationship between disappearing bees and birds, “A few weeks ago, the American Bird Conservancy testified before Congress stating, ‘There’s obviously something wrong.’” “Western states’ agencies need to fund their universities’ bee research.” Penn State conducts bee research; some beekeepers are breeding “super queens” –i.e. those surviving the hive deaths, to create more resilient bees. A professor researches neonicotinoids (new, superpesticides). Adee said the EPA gives states’ lead agencies grant money to enforce its laws but field data reporting is voluntary; there is no accountability. Bill Dahle owns the major Montana beekeeping operation, Big Sky Honey, in Fairview. In response to Montana State Entomologist Cam Lay who said the question is open on whether there is sufficient dosage of neonicotinoids by bees in the fields to compare with study results he said, “That’s not entirely true.” Bees don’t go to just one field, one crop; they have multiple exposures to multiple chemicals. “The state doesn’t understand the scope of the contact,” he explained. “We move all over-to all different types of insecticides, on fields, in the run-offs, settling ponds. The bees go for a drink of water and can get infected and return and infect the whole hive. We’ve never seen losses on this scale-all ages of loss in the hives. We thought 40 percent was huge, but in California, 80 percent losses were occurring.” Dahl recognizes that stress from drought can be a factor but believes there are multiple factors. “It’s killing us, it’s a horrible, detrimental effect. The general public needs to know how important bees are. Every third bite will no longer exist. It affects everything-dairy prices, food prices.” Dahle had to buy more bees from out of state. He said, “I can do it this year, as long as they have bees, as long as I have money.” He suffered $2 million in losses for 2013. “Any other farm operation would have help with such a disaster,” he said. His losses for fall and spring totaled 80 percent. “We have always been uninsurable. For 30 years, we’ve never been able to buy insurance.” He calls on locals: “We need people calling and telling your congressman how important it is to reschedule the 2018 EPA study date.” For Earth Day, transform your space to welcome diverse species. Most importantly, have that talk with your family, friends and neighbors about the birds and the bees. See: birds.audubon.org/species-by-program/cbid.