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USDA offers incentives to Minnesota farmers who boost bee habitat

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A new effort to reverse a decline in the honey bee population could be a sweet deal for some Minnesota farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering incentives to farmers who expand bee habitat in Minnesota and four other Midwestern states, MPR News reports. $8 million worth of incentive payments are available to growers who seed land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program with bee-friendly plants.

The British Broadcasting Corporation reports the number of bees in the U.S. dropped by 23 percent over the winter. Some experts attribute the decline to certain pesticides, though other factors including a loss of natural forage and less genetic diversity have also been cited, the BBC says.

The USDA's incentive program applies to CRP acreage in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Michigan. The Department says those five states have more than half of the country's commercially managed bee colonies.

In conjunction with the USDA's new incentive program, the Obama administration also announced formation of a task force that will develop recommendations for how to stem the decline in bees.

The loss of bees is ringing alarm bells in the agricultural world because of their vital role in pollination. According to the BBC, bees pollinate one-fourth of the food produced in the U.S. The USDA calls them "the pollinator workhorse" of fruit and vegetable production and says $15 billion worth of agriculture depends on the busy insects.

The Bismark Tribune says half a million colonies in North Dakota make that state the nation's top producer of honey. The Tribune reports farmers who take up the USDA on the offer will seed their CRP land with wildflowers, clover, alfalfa, or other flowering crops.

The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers who agree to stop planting crops on environmentally sensitive land as a way to control erosion, restore wetlands, or improve wildlife habitat.

While it has accelerated recently, the loss of bees and other pollinators such as monarch butterflies has been on the radar of biologists for years. In 2010 a stakeholders meeting at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire produced a report that looked specifically at how to boost pollinators in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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