Erin Rupp is the founder and executive director of Pollinate Minnesota, an education and advocacy organization working toward a better Minnesota for pollinators and people. PAN Organizer Willa Childress recently chatted with Erin about the challenges beekeepers face in our current farming system and the exciting pollinator work progressing in the state.
What is Pollinate MN? How did you get into beekeeping, education and advocacy?
I started beekeeping in 2007 with a background in informal science education. Working with bees is a tangible — and magical — learning experience, so I set out with the goal of making this something that teachers can access. I then started Pollinate MN in 2015. I have between eight and 25 hives at different schools and parks and community gardens, and we teach classes with everyone in beekeeping suits, hanging out with the bees.
Advocacy-wise, I had been looking for how to find my voice around food justice and food systems reform when I experienced a pesticide kill at one of my hives in Minneapolis. Two other beekeepers and a number of concerned citizens joined me in heading straight to the capitol to ask for protections.
What’s the most important thing for people to understand about pollinators and their role in agriculture?
Seeds and fruits come to us mostly through flowering plants. And whether you’re growing a garden at home or over a million acres of almonds in Northern California, those are all still flowers that need somebody to move pollen. Pollinators need pollen and nectar year-round in order to eat, pollinate and reproduce — something they find on diverse farms and ecosystems. But in monocultures, we have to pay beekeepers to transport millions of honey bees to do that pollination service work. The way the conventional monoculture farming system is set up has honey bees and beekeepers as an integral piece — we couldn’t do this without having beekeepers working tirelessly to manage bees.
Humans have been moving honey bees for a long time, but the scale of that movement has changed a lot. In this structure of monocultures and their rapid expansion, there was a conscious choice that went something like this: “Hey, insect pollinators are necessary, but the insecticides that are also necessary to the way monocultures function are going to kill those insect pollinators. So we’ll just pay beekeepers to bring honey bees in.” I guess people thought that because honey bees live in a hive with so many individuals they weren’t going to die or struggle from these chemicals the way wild pollinators do. But they are dying. Beekeepers now have to put in months of extra labor to keep their hives healthy.
What are key barriers or challenges that beekeepers face today?
The reasons bees are struggling are well known. There are viruses and diseases specific to honey bees, and pesticide exposures and lack of food are also factors in pollinator decline. These all compound — if you have a mite population living in your hive and it’s then exposed to pesticides, both hit the hive harder. In terms of pesticide exposure, it’s often not worth the time it takes for a large-scale beekeeper to sample dying bees in their 500+ hives, so they never find out what killed their bees.
A complicating factor is that many pesticide kills happen on the farms where beekeepers are being paid to provide pollination services, and long-standing, good relationships with growers are foundational to beekeeping. If a farmer is growing in monocultures, there are different reasons why they might use chemicals on their farm. But they do have an impact on the other things in that ecosystem, including the managed honey bees they’re paying to have there. The honey bees just take all this damage, and the system is functioning exactly how it was designed to. Those who profit are not the farmers or beekeepers, it’s the agribusiness corporations who make the seed and pesticide inputs for the monoculture. Yet they hold none of the risks.
What progress on pollinator issues are you most excited about right now in Minnesota?
We’re leading the nation in the number of policies we have to protect pollinators. The importance of bees and pollinators are a shared talking point for almost everyone — no one says I hate bees, or I hate beekeepers. It’s a very tangible and direct issue, it can crawl on your hand! There are a lot of ways we’re chipping away at the pesticide piece of the puzzle and reducing pesticide exposure for pollinators. One of the most exciting things is we’re leading in the country on pesticide preemption policy. We have a local control bill moving through the House this year that would allow pollinator-friendly cities to control bees’ exposure to pollinator lethal pesticides within their communities.
We also have a lot of great policy progress at levels of government smaller than the state. We have more communities that are pollinator-friendly than any other state in the country — 44 plus three colleges! And all of that has happened just since 2014.
How can folks in Minnesota and beyond help support pollinator and beekeeper education and advocacy work?
The pollinator-friendly communities we have here in Minnesota came about because everyday constituents raised the issue with their elected officials. Patricia Hauser from Humming for Bees watched a bee decline movie and brought it to her city council, asked if they would watch it with her and then discuss what they could do to help.
PAN is great to connect with for resources on policy work and ways to get engaged. We have an intentionally intimidating and convoluted system, and people think they can’t be experts on farm and pesticide policy but there are ways to increase education little by little. And if you look at the pesticide industry’s testimony on things like local control, they are not experts on policy at all! A number of other great groups and resources out there are the American Beekeeping Federation who sued EPA on the pollinator-harming pesticide sulfoxaflor, and the Pollinator Stewardship Council who does great organizing for beekeepers around honey bee health.
What is your ideal vision of a just, healthy food and farming system?
Farmers around the world, for millennia, have been farming regeneratively and in a way that supports pollinators and ecosystems. The expertise exists, and we have the tools and relationships to make this happen. Industry’s 4.42 billion dollars annually in neonic pesticide sales is very different than Pollinate MN’s annual budget, but farming isn’t going to change unless we make it change. There is real interest and passion behind this issue, a lot of public support, and people's knowledge is just deepening and growing. We’re seeing that reflected in policy and it’s exciting!
Photo credit: David Pierini North News