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Past role and future outlook of the Conservation Reserve Program for supporting honey bees in the Great Plains

July 17, 2018

Human dependence on insect pollinators continues to grow even as pollinators face global declines. The Northern Great Plains (NGP), a region often referred to as America’s last honey bee (Apis mellifera) refuge, has undergone rapid land-cover change due to cropland expansion and weakened land conservation programs. We conducted a trend analysis and estimated conversion rates of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollments around bee apiaries from 2006 to 2016 and developed models to identify areas of habitat loss. Our analysis revealed that NGP apiaries lost over 53% of lands enrolled in the CRP, and the rate of loss was highest in areas of high apiary density. We estimated over 163,000 ha of CRP lands in 2006 within 1.6 km of apiaries was converted to row crops by 2012. We also evaluated how alternative scenarios of future CRP acreage caps may affect habitat suitability for supporting honey bee colonies. Our scenario revealed that a further reduction in CRP lands to 7.7 million ha nationally would reduce the number of apiaries in the NGP that meet defined forage criteria by 28% on average. Alternatively, increasing the national cap to 15 million ha would increase the number of NGP apiaries that meet defined forage criteria by 155%. Our scenarios also show that strategic placement of CRP lands near existing apiaries increased the number of apiaries that meet forage criteria by 182%. Our research will be useful for informing the potential consequences of future US farm bill policy and land management in the epicenter of the US beekeeping industry.