by CHRIS ROGERS
It is a bold goal. A citizen group called the Winona Area Pollinators, together with other local environmentalists, want to reverse the sharp decline populations of honey bees and native pollinators have suffered in recent years. Each year since 2007, around 30 percent of the U.S. bee population died off, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).
Bees are dropping like flies.
Winona Area Pollinators organizer Marv Hodge shared more anecdotal evidence from some local truck drivers: they do not have to clean their windshields as often because there is so much less insect life in the air. Flower-hopping insects are crucial to the lifecycle of many crops and native plants. The Winona Area Pollinators want to save the bees — and the moths, and the butterflies, and the wasps. To do so, they are starting small.
The Winona Area Pollinators’ strategy for saving the bees is simple. Step one: stop poisoning the bees. Step two: stop destroying bee food. Step three: plant more bee food.
For the last couple years, the group has encouraged individual Winonans to plant native flowers in their yards, and from Winona State University to Madison Elementary School to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, many local institutions are also planting native gardens. There are a diverse array of native flowers that bloom at different times throughout the growing season, so that bees and other pollinators always have something to eat. National and state experts say that, as monocultures of grass and crops have replaced native flowers, bees have had less food to eat. Experts also believe that pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, have poisoned bees and made them more susceptible to disease and parasites. The Winona Area Pollinators and MDA experts are encouraging home owners not to use neonicotinoid pesticides.
Earlier this month, at the Winona Area Pollinators’ urging, the Winona City Council approved a resolution promising to try to avoid pesticides that may harm pollinators, to consider changing mowing policies to avoid destroying flowers on which pollinators depend, and to consider planting more native flowers on which pollinators could feed. Officials said the city already had policies against neonicotinoid use by city staff, but the new resolution calls for the city to extend that policy to contractors. The resolution only applies to the city-owned land managed by city staff and contractors, not to private citizens.
The city also pledged to consider locations where city maintenance staff could change its mowing routines to not cut down potential pollinator food during key periods of the year. Hodge and fellow Winona Area Pollinators organizer Jim Armstrong expect that bees and butterflies will benefit from a proposal already in development to limit mowing around the shore of Lake Winona. That proposal was advanced by another citizen environmental group, Healthy Lake Winona, with the goal of cutting down erosion and runoff and discouraging excessive numbers of geese and ducks. City staff have not laid specific plans for where else the city might limit mowing.
Finally, the city pledged to consider native plantings whenever the city installs new landscaping. There are no specific plans for plantings yet.
The language of the resolution is not hard-and-fast. “In the event chemicals are being used that are not pollinator-friendly, the city will attempt to find reasonable alternatives,” it reads. The resolution calls for the city to avoid mowing prime pollinator habitat during key periods of the year, “where reasonably practicable.”
There are going to be exceptions to this policy for things such as golf course and athletic field maintenance and for pesticides used in emerald ash borer inoculations, Armstrong said. “We recognize that. We’re practical,” he stated.
With such open-ended language in the resolution, is the city serious about following through on the spirit of the pro-pollinator pledge? After working with city staff for months, Armstrong and Hodge were confident city staff are committed. After all, Armstrong said, city staff came to the Winona Area Pollinators for advice on the timing of mowing. “I do feel there is a will behind it,” Armstrong said.
Winona Natural Resource Sustainability Coordinator John Howard is new to city hall. His position was created earlier this year in a reshuffling of existing positions, and it comes with two tasks: to monitor the city’s compliance with stormwater regulations and to work on environmental initiatives. The combination of duties is reflective of part of the reason for the city’s new embrace of Healthy Lake Winona’s water quality initiatives: if the city does not voluntarily launch such programs, state stormwater regulators may force the city’s hand.
Regulators are not pressuring the city to help bees, however. Howard said that city leaders are genuinely interested and committed to making the city more environmentally friendly. “I definitely feel that by bringing me on as a full-time staff to work on sustainability and stormwater that there really is a commitment by the city to work on these areas, and I think, with these [citizen] groups that are really active, if the city isn’t doing a good job, they’ll let us know, and they’ll be working with us to make sure that we do do a good job,” he said.
Hodge said Winona is the first Minnesotan city south of the metro area to adopt such pollinator-friendly policies. With all of Winona’s scenic beauty and outdoor recreation, “I think it’s a natural thing to say we’d be a pollinator-friendly city,” Armstrong said.
What is more, cutting back on mowing and spraying will save money, Armstrong stated. “Grass is expensive. Pollinator habitats, once they’re built, are pretty easy to maintain … They’re good for the pocketbook; they’re good for the environment,” he said.
Hodge and Armstrong hope other Winona County cities will follow suit, and that together with efforts to expand rural roadside prairies by the Winona County Parks and Environmental Committee, that the Winona area could become an oasis for pollinators.
Readers may find more information on the Winona Area Pollinators by visiting the group's Facebook page. People interested in joining the group may contact it there or reach Hodge and Armstrong at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on common pesticides that are toxic to bees is available online from the MDA and from the insect conservation group, the Xerces Society, at www.mda.state.mn.us/protecting/bmps/pollinators.aspx and www.xerces.org.