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Beekeepers, bee lovers excited about new state grant program

June 06, 2019 07:50 PM

As someone whose business depends on bees, Travis Bolton couldn't be happier to see the state taking steps to help slow the decline in Minnesota's bee population.

Under a spending plan approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz last week, $900,000 will be set aside to be used as grants to help cover the cost for homeowners interested in planting bee-friendly plants in their yard to create new or more thriving bee habitats.

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RELATED: Study: Minnesota among nation's leaders in protecting bees

"It's just another step to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthy bee population," said Bolton, who along with his wife Chiara runs Bolton Bees, a company that has partnered with various solar power gardens around the metro.

Instead of planting turf grass or dumping gravel underneath and around the panels, these facilities have planted lower-growing native grasses and flowers that are more pollinator-friendly.

They, in turn, support the hives Bolton Bees has placed there, allowing them to produce location-specific Solar Honey - packed in custom jars for the solar companies and/or subscribers.

And because bees can often fly in a three-mile radius to obtain nectar, Bolton said the more pollinator-friendly environments out there the better.

"I go to the hardware store and I'll see the person next to me purchase a whole cocktail of poisons to get rid of the Creeping Charlie or dandelions in their backyard," he said. "And if they don't do it exactly right, they're spraying the flowers where our bees go. So they're really spraying the bees.

"Anything that gets more people to change that mindset of what a perfect lawn should be will have a big impact on every beekeeper in the state."

According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, the current plans call for funding to be distributed to local conservation partners later this year, so they can distribute funding to individual landowners to implement projects in the spring and summer of 2020.

The bill states 75 percent of the costs for "planting residential lawns with native vegetation and pollinator-friendly forbs and legumes" can be covered through the grants, or 90 percent in places where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined there is a high potential for the presence of rusty patched bumble bees.

That bee is an endangered species that was designated by Walz as the state bee last week.

James Wolfin, a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota's Bee Lab and Turfgrass Science Lab, said he hopes the program encourages more people to take part. 

"What I'd like to see from a philosophical standpoint is that communities and neighborhoods as a whole change their idea of what a perfect lawn looks like," he said.

"Just to be more bee-aware and have more diversity in terms of what's planted. If we can maintain the rec surfaces we all enjoy, but also maintain and improve the forage bees rely on, that would be a success."

Get Growing: Attracting pollinators

Wolfin said factors ranging from human population increase, the expansion of urban areas and a decline in the number of beekeepers have all combined to drive wild and honey bee numbers down.

"In both diversity of species and general abundance, we've seen a decline across the country," he said. "And when you take a drop in the number of beekeepers, a loss of habitat and an increase in (human) population, we need more food and have less and less bees for pollination.

"So many of the fruits and vegetables we value come from plants pollinated by bees."

RELATED: Wild bee species critical to pollination on the decline

Cheryl Seeman of Andover is a master gardener who has turned her yard into a pollinator sanctuary over the past 15 years. And, as the chairperson of the Andover Pollinator Awareness Project, she has helped a number of other people do the same.

She suggests starting small, simply seeding part of a lawn with plants like Dutch white clover and others. Or taking several layers of newspaper and laying it over existing sod. Then placing compost, grass clippings and manure on top in the fall, letting it sit over the winter, and planting in the spring - an approach she describes as lasagna gardening.

"I just love doing it," she said. "The more I did it, the more addicted I became.

"It gives you the chance to be creative. What works for me may not work for someone else. Just use your imagination and create spaces.

She said the biggest effort comes from getting things going. 

"Really, the most work is the install," she said. "Once you do that, you're just nurturing it."

RELATED: At State Fair, a new hope for bee conservation

And she said the end results are worth it.

"The bee is the poster child, but it brings in all kinds of things - butterflies, moths, birds," said Seeman, whose home will be part of the Andover Pollinator Garden Tour, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 20.

"I just love looking out my window and seeing all that outside. I feel like I'm leaving a better footprint."

Both she and the Boltons said they hope the new state program inspires more people to do the same.

"I'm really excited about this," Chiara Bolton said. "I'm happy to see Minnesota take the lead and hopefully inspire more people to take this on."

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