Natural Capital Project: Protecting pollinator habitats through smart seed mixes
This blog post was originally published on the Natural Capital Project website. Sarah Cafasso is the NatCap Communications Manager.
Farmers and conservationists agree: bee habitats need to be protected. As wild pollinators, bees are important contributors to crop pollination in agricultural lands around the world. One third of the food we eat requires pollination, most often from honey bees. At more than $15 billion a year, honey bee pollination supports the production of more than 130 fruits, vegetables, and crops in North America. The supply of managed honey bees is increasingly threatened due to exposure from pesticides and pathogens, making it harder and more expensive for farmers to raise bees. Wild bees can fill a significant backup role here, solidifying the importance of their habitats as well as that of the honey bees.
Bees depend on habitats full of flowers, which farmers can grow using customized seed mixes that support a constant supply of local wild bees. But these seed mixes are often expensive, creating a significant barrier for farmers to take the steps needed to protect vital pollinators.
To tackle this issue, the Natural Capital Project’s team at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment is working with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to explore methods for cost-effective pollinator habitat support. The CRP, an initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, is a land conservation program in which farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. As of 2017, over 23 million acres of land were included in the CRP.
Looking for new ways to increase the effectiveness of seed mixes that support pollinators while keeping costs low, the Farm Service Agency asked NatCap lead scientist Eric Lonsdorf and his team for help. “We’re trying to promote cost effective conservation,” said Lonsdorf.
The team looked at data sets and seed mixes from California, the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin), Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Using a new framework developed by Lonsdorf and Neal Williams at the University of California, Davis, they aimed to maximize bee diversity while minimizing cost in seed mixes. “The model takes known information about when plants are flowering, when bees are flying, and the way that plants and bees interact and combines it with the costs of plants. It then uses that information to create the cheapest set of plants possible that support the most bees across the full flowering season,” explained Lonsdorf.
In the past, seed mixes have been compiled based on the performance of individual plant species. This new work helps to systematize the approach and incorporates how different plants interact not only with diverse pollinators, but with other plants in the mix.
Through evaluation of current seed mixes and application of the new framework, Lonsdorf’s team is able to make recommendations for cost effective, optimized seed mixes in each locale. An optimized seed mix carries a few key characteristics: it’s mostly comprised of plants that support pollinators, it grows successfully in the region, it blooms at the right time, and it’s compatible with local land management practices.
The NatCap team will submit a report on the work to the Farm Service Agency this month, along with a computational tool that will allow users to explore different planting schemes to see which other seed mixes might work to support bee habitats. The work doesn’t end here: NatCap Senior Scientist Peter Hawthorne is working on refining the algorithms and improving the user-friendly and interactive elements of the tool. The team is also expanding their work to research how the amount of seeds in a mix can influence the success of the pollinator habitat, looking to optimize how many seeds are included in any given mix.
By optimizing these approaches for both quality and cost, researchers are able to lower the financial barrier for higher quality restorations so that more habitat can be added for these vital pollinators. “It’s all about efficiency,” says Lonsdorf, “and we have to thoughtfully deliver our knowledge to practitioners to better support bee habitats, because we don’t want to find out what happens to our food system when we don’t have them around any more.”