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USDA hoping Minnesota can help save honeybee population

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Federal officials fretting over the collapse of honeybee populations – and the potentially devastating effect it could have on U.S. food production – are hoping Minnesota can help get rural America buzzing again.

Farmers and ranchers in the Upper Midwest are now eligible to receive money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help the nation’s struggling honeybee population, according to a release from the USDA.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will provide close to $3 million in technical and financial assistance for interested farmers to help improve the health of bees, which play an important role in the production of crops, the USDA says. This program is the latest in a series of USDA efforts to reduce the deaths of honeybees, the Associated Press reports.

Farmers and ranchers in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota can qualify for this money to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other cover crops that appeal to livestock and provide a quality habitat for bees – dairy cows and bees like the same plants, according to the Associated Press. These practices can also benefit farmers by reducing erosion and increasing the health of their soil, among other things. The USDA will also provide guidance and support to the farmers who implement these conservation practices.

The USDA says the Midwest states were picked for the program because 65 percent of the nation’s estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers bring hives there from June to September – a time to gather nectar and pollen for the winter months.

"Honey bee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet. The future security of America's food supply depends on healthy honey bees," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release from the USDA. "Expanded support for research, combined with USDA's other efforts to improve honey bee health, should help America's beekeepers combat the current, unprecedented loss of honey bee hives each year."

Agricultural production has been threatened due to a decade-long decline in honeybees – losses over the winter months total about 30 percent each year, the AP reports. Prior to 2006, honeybee populations typically dropped 10-15 percent, the USDA says. Bee populations are less than half of what they were in the 1970s, according to Kiplinger. The USDA hopes to improve the bee population by providing more habitats and food supply for them.

Scientists have speculated on four general causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, or the die-off of honeybees: viruses and bacteria, parasites such as the Varroa mite, transporting honeybees across the country, and lastly, environmental stressors that include pollen and nectar with low nutritional value and possible exposure to pesticides. The USDA says there is no consistent pattern between colonies and honeybee deaths.

The deadline for farmers to sign up for the program is March 21. The funds are provided through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. For more information on how to apply for USDA programs, click here.

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