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Busy Bees

Hidden in the infrastructure bill is a $2 million fight to save a vital creature

Why is Congress trying to save the bees? It's complicated.

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Buried in the United States Congress’ $1 trillion, 2,702-page-long infrastructure bill — currently in the Senate — is a short, easily skippable section with an equally small budget.

The title: “Pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides and highway rights of way.”

Pollinators are animals — birds, bees, and butterflies — transporting pollen from one plant to another, helping plants reproduce, and keeping the humans that depend on them for food and more alive. Congress is ponying up billions of dollars for electric vehicles — but they are sparing $2 million for the fight to save these vital creatures.

All of which begs a new question: Why is Congress trying to put money to saving pollinators inside an infrastructure bill?

This is where we get into the surprisingly complex politics of pollinators.

What’s in the infrastructure bill?

Counterintuitively, the effort to put money to bees is also to do with a much more obvious part of infrastructure spending: America’s roads. The part of this behemoth bill that we care about is under Section 11528. This section of Congress’ bipartisan infrastructure bill seeks to establish a grant program to fund approved groups who want to develop “pollinator-friendly practices” along roadsides and highways.

The total program amount is $2 million allocated on an annual basis through 2026. States can request up to $150,000 to fund separate pollinator conservation projects.

The total bill has a $1 trillion price tag, so $2 million is a drop in the ocean. But it may be enough for some states to put in place sustainable practices that could save countless bees, butterflies, and other animal pollinators — and keep them around for the future.

This isn’t the first bill this year to address the politics of pollinators.

Earlier this year, Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, reintroduced Saving America’s Pollinators Act to Congress, which, if enacted, would establish a Pollinator Protection Board to monitor pesticides that could pose a threat to pollinating animals, like bees.

“Pollinator-friendly practices,” explained

Monarch butterflies are important pollinators, but their population has rapidly declined in California. The infrastructure bill could provide funding to help save pollinators’ habitats. Roy Nice-Webb / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Pollinator-friendly practices are defined as conservation measures that make the land and vegetation more hospitable and safer for pollinators to live in and frequent these spaces.

The bill specifies three pollinator-friendly practices that meet the bar for funding:

  1. Mowing vegetation on the side of roads and highways only during the seasons and times that pollinator species are least likely to be present.
  2. Limiting where local authorities can mow vegetation to state-designated safety zones designed around pollinators.
  3. Planting pollinator-friendly plants along roads and highways, including grasses and wildflowers native to the local area, such as milkweed.

With all the focus already on roads, highways, and cars in this bill, it is perhaps only fitting that the funding for pollinators also features a nod to transport infrastructure.

Congress is following in the roadmap of certain states. In 2019, the Minnesota state legislature passed a law providing homeowners financial incentives to convert their lawns into pollinator-friendly havens.

Earlier this year, a coalition of conservation groups partnered with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to try and save the state’s dwindling monarch butterfly population.

The monarch butterfly population declined 99 percent in the last three decades, leaving fewer than 2,000 butterflies in the state as of November 2020. One of the primary reasons for the butterfly’s decline is the loss of migratory habitat.

As part of that effort, the California state government has devoted $1 million to help restore its habitat by planting milkweed — an essential part of the butterfly’s diet.

Why is Congress trying to save pollinators?

Pollinators like bumblebees are in severe decline, driven by habitat loss due to pesticides and the climate crisis. Getty

An environmental conservation measure in a bill about infrastructure is a surprisingly common feature. Members of Congress will often introduce riders — amendments that have little to do with the central subject — to get their pet projects passed.

While many riders might benefit a specific Congressional district over the others, Section 11528 could benefit any state or district where pollinators are engaging in pollinating along roads or highways — that’s a pretty open field.

That Congress is taking this step now is critical: Insect populations are rapidly declining worldwide, and insect pollinators face specific challenges in the U.S.

Bees are among the world’s most important pollinators, but they’re declining at an alarming rate. A 2020 report noted a nearly 50 percent decrease in the bumblebee population in North America. Warming temperatures fueled by the climate crisis have altered the bees’ natural habitats and sped up their decline.

Pollinators like bees are essential to the reproduction of the world’s plants and crops. According to the USDA, three-quarters of the world’s flowers and 35 percent of its food crops rely on pollinators to reproduce.

So, if we want to save our food systems and our economy, we need to first protect the pollinators.

What’s next for the infrastructure bill?

The Senate took up consideration of the infrastructure bill on Monday. Senators need to debate and vote on the bill, and if it goes well, the bill will then get sent to a conference committee to iron out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The finalized bill returns to the House and Senate for approval before being sent to the president to sign. If Section 11528 remains intact, approved groups can apply for funding worth up to $150,000 for pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides ad highways.

These approved groups include:

  • State departments of transportation
  • Federal land management agencies
  • Native American tribes

According to the bill, groups can also consult with state fish and wildlife services, universities, and environmental nonprofits to develop pollinator-friendly roadside practices.

But the Senate may scrap the $2 million provision for pollinator-friendly practices before the bill becomes law.

If that’s the case, Congress will need to find other ways to save pollinators aside from the infrastructure bill. Representative Blumenauer’s bill, Saving America’s Pollinators Act, may be a blueprint for future action.

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