David Lias

Early last spring, I opined that I wish Gov. Kristi Noem would have focused on encouraging habitat production rather than trapping to help increase South Dakota’s pheasant population.

Instead, she went all in on a nest predator bounty program that focuses on increasing the trapping of predators

I harkened back to my days as a rather care-free farm kid that grew up in virtual pheasant mecca. There really wasn’t a need to worry about predators, at least in terms of the pheasant population. There was no need to put a bounty on the heads of raccoon, striped skunk, badger, opossum, and red fox, because pheasants had lots of natural habitat in which to live all through the Midwest, including South Dakota.

It all started with the Soil Bank that was introduced by the Eisenhower Administration at about the time I was born. The Soil Bank got its start when a surplus of wheat and feed grains led to the government-supported program that paid farmers to idle acres of cropland in exchange for fields of grasses.

It was a philosophy in ag management that persisted through my younger years. The federal government established programs to pay farmers to keep some of their land out of production.

Long-time South Dakotans remember those days. It was a time of brushy fence lines and areas of grassy cover where ring-necked roosters used to erupt and fill the sky like a flock of blackbirds.

What they likely also remember is a bountiful population of honey bees. Again, while a youngster attending elementary school and learning about what makes South Dakota unique, I seem to recall lessons in how South Dakota was the leading honey producer in the nation.

We’re no longer at the top it appears.

What’s alarming is a report by Nick Lowrey of South Dakota News Watch that was published this week in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Lowrey reports that South Dakota beekeepers — among the largest players in the U.S. pollination and honey industries — are reeling from a nationwide spike in honeybee colony losses that has the potential to affect 90 different agricultural crops across the country and could raise the price of fruit, vegetables and nuts if the problem worsens.

In 2018, the state’s beekeepers brought in more than $23 million from the sale of honey from roughly 255,000 hives, he writes.  South Dakota ranked fourth in the nation in terms of honey production that year. But declining numbers of bees, both domestic and wild, threatens yields on crops ranging from almonds and apples on the West Coast to cotton and cranberries in the East.

 

For more than a decade, beekeepers in South Dakota and around the country have been fighting against historically high colony loss rates of nearly 30 percent each year. Still, last year’s 40 percent colony loss rate was a blow to beekeepers. Despite years of intensive research and countless hours of work to reverse the tide, bees continue to struggle.

Tim Hollmann, a beekeeper from Dante, a few miles south of Wagner near the Yankton Sioux Reservation, states in Lowrey’s report that much of the problem comes down to what bees eat. Farmers have plowed up more pastures to plant row crops such as corn and soybeans, and they’ve gotten better at killing flowering plants like milkweed and sweet clover in and around their fields, leaving less pollen and nectar for bees to consume. The pesticides and fungicides commonly used in modern agriculture also have been shown to make bees more susceptible to disease, if not killing them outright.

Commercial beekeepers say official data undercount the loss of commercial bee colonies. Bret Adee, co-owner of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, S.D., one of the largest commercial beekeeping operations in the world, said some commercial keepers lost 70 percent or more of their bees last winter.

Adee said his company lost so many bees that the business was forced to shutter its beekeeping operation in Nebraska and lay off employees. Prior to last year, the business kept bees in Nebraska for 60 years, Bret Adee said.

“We didn’t have enough bees in our boxes,” he said in the South Dakota News Watch report.

Honey produced from South Dakota’s sweet clover, alfalfa and wildflowers is highly prized for its mild flavor and light color. Unfortunately, per-hive production has fallen about 50 percent over the past 15 to 20 years, said Bret Adee’s brother and business partner, Kelvin Adee. Total U.S. honey production has dropped by about half, falling from 250 million pounds to about 150 million pounds annually, he said.

Lowrey reports that as annual honeybee colony loss rates continue to rise and honey production falls, the federal government has been pulling back its honey bee monitoring efforts. In July 2019, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service announced it would indefinitely suspend its quarterly honeybee colony survival survey and in December 2018, the service suspended its annual cost of pollination survey. Both surveys were cut, according to USDA news releases, due to budget reductions.

News of the colony loss survey being cut was a blow to the industry, Bret Adee said. Many beekeepers worry that the information might be lost for good and with it more targeted research funding. Better research will be needed to help reverse the tide of honeybee colony deaths, Bret Adee said.

“We’re kind of in the darkest days of the industry right now,” he said.

Honey production is a multi-million dollar industry in South Dakota. I argued last spring that a better way to boost our pheasant population would be to focus on providing more habitat. Bees likely would agree with pheasants that more diverse, sheltering plant life in the state would be a good thing.

Lowrey reports that the increased number of corn and soybean acres planted in recent years also limits locations bees can find food in South Dakota. Since 2008, 42 percent of the land South Dakota farmers had enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program have been taken out of the program and often converted to row crop production.

I know today’s farmers are planting fencerow to fencerow because they really have no choice. They’re trying their best to make a living.

The CRP pays farmers to plant grass and other wildlife habitat and leave it relatively undisturbed for 10 years. Wildlife such as pheasants and deer benefit, but so do bees which find plenty of honeymaking materials and a wide variety of nutritious pollen in CRP grasslands, Lowrey writes.

Gov. Noem talked about finding  "the next big thing," in one of her first speeches after being elected. Boosting pheasant and bee populations by increasing habitat in which both bug and bird flourish may not be “big enough” in the governor’s priority list as she deals with a variety of issues facing South Dakota.

May we suggest that finding a way to simultaneously boost agriculture and habitat – something that two of South Dakota’s money-making winged critters – pheasants and bees – would surely appreciate, might be a honey of a deal for our state to focus on.

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