State legislature's push to help bees, butterflies should focus on habitats

While spring seems far-off to many Connecticut residents, pollinators may be on the state’s legislative agenda this winter as declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations not only cause economic losses, but also threaten Connecticut’s natural heritage. (labbradolci/Flickr)

A legislative push for bees and butterflies in Connecticut should focus on habitat protection, experts say.

While spring seems far off to many Connecticut residents, pollinators may be on the state’s legislative agenda this winter as declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations not only cause economic losses, but also threaten Connecticut’s natural heritage.

Connecticut Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr., who is leading the effort, is working on legislation to bring to the next legislative session Wednesday, according to his web page. He was unavailable to speak, but his efforts come after a task force was formed last year as part of a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators across the nation.

The decline of pollinators, especially honeybees, has cost the United States billions of dollars in agricultural losses, said David Wagner, a professor and entomologist at the University of Connecticut.

“Right now we are in a very vulnerable position. If we don’t take care of our pollinators, it’s an enormous economic risk,” Wagner said, with an emphasis on Connecticut’s bees. “So much of our fruit and nut crops are dependent them, including our apples.”

Six years ago, agriculture added $1.7 billion to Connecticut’s economy, accounting for a $3.5 billion impact on the state, according to the last comprehensive report on Connecticut’s agricultural economy released by UConn in 2010.

Apples alone are worth over $12 million dollars a year with an average yearly harvest of a half-million bushels, according to Commissioner of Agriculture Steven K. Reviczky in a 2014 edition of CT Weekly Agricultural Report.

With over 80 apple orchards and a tradition of yearly harvest festivals and fairs across the state, there are both economic and cultural losses at stake as fewer bees are around to pollinate apple trees, said Jay Kaplan, who is the director of the Roaring Brooke Nature Center in Canton and a member of the Connecticut Butterfly Association.

"There aren't enough bees to pollinate apple orchards,” Kaplan said. “We have to truck bees into the state to pollinate plants because we have had such a problem with bee death."

With the possibility of a legislative push toward state-level protection of pollinators, Wagner said the most important issue is pollinator habitat.

When it comes to invertebrates, like bees and butterflies, Wagner said, it’s about habitat protection. Once you allow the invertebrates to reproduce, they have an innate ability to increase rapidly.

“You build it and they will come,” Wagner said, stressing the need for continually maintained grasslands and shrub thickets, called early successional habitats, with wildflowers and milkweed for pollinators. He said much of this habitat is being lost to development.

“Connecticut’s wild lands are lost one acre at a time,” Wagner said. “You don’t have to run the clock forward too long before you realize most of your wild lands are gone.”

Although legislative efforts could provide significant relief for pollinator populations, they will have to grapple with opposing interests.

“If most people were asked if we should protect biodiversity,” Wagner said, referring to the protection of over 300 bee species and many more pollinators in the state. “They would say yes, but if it meant limited beach access, that you couldn’t develop your home in certain habitats or if you couldn’t use water in certain ways, than they would say we have to make an exception.”

Bees aren’t the only pollinators at risk. As part of the National North American Butterfly Association’s census, residents of Connecticut’s Farmington Valley counted no monarch butterflies for the first time last summer, Kaplan said, compared to 41 monarchs just three years ago.

“Butterfly populations are interesting because monarchs have crashed over the last 25 years,” Kaplan said, adding that they’ve decreased by over 25 percent. "Many things combined have really wacked the monarch populations."

Habitat loss is among them. Connecticut farmers used to leave buffer zones of milkweed around their crop fields, where monarchs could lay their eggs, but now are pushing farther into this buffer zone, Kaplan said.

Habitat protection is among a string of issues that are likely talking points in legislative efforts to improve pollinator health. Others include the risk of pathogens, pesticide use and climate change.

“We can use honeybee or monarchs as flagship species to get people thinking about nature,” Wagner said. “We inherit the earth from our fathers and mothers and we have a responsibility to give back a world that’s in the same shape and just to our children.”


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.