MORRIS – This month, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced it will provide almost $3 million in technical and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers interested in helping improve the health of bees.

The project is focused on five midwestern states – Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin – that are the home to over 65 percent of the commercially managed honey bees in the country from June to September.

This summer resting period is a critical time for bees, who need plentiful and diverse food sources to build up their hive strength for the winter.

“Beekeepers in Minnesota are losing unprecedented numbers of honey bee hives each year,” said Minnesota State Conservationist Don Baloun in a press release. “Honey bee pollination is estimated to support more than $15 billion worth of agricultural production and commercial production of more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet in the United States. Not only do bees pollinate the crops that produce much of America’s food supply, but they are an important part of the rural ecosystem.”

Scientists at the North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris have been working on a multi-year study to evaluate the potential value different crops have in providing food for pollinators and value for farmers.

“Some of these crops are brand new, so there’s really not too much of an economic system that’s been developed yet for selling the seeds,” said Research Agronomist Frank Forcella . “Others are much farther advanced in terms of the recognition of their usefulness.”

One alternative oilseed crops that can provide both nutrition and economic value is cuphea.

Cuphea flowers from August to mid-September, which provides food for bees late into the season when fewer native plants are flowering. It’s also popular with a range of native pollinators, said Carrie Eberle, post-doctoral research agronomist.

Cuphea is also a potential ingredient in a new line of shampoo from Aveda – the company is already contracting with Minnesota farmers to grow the crop, said Forcella.

“We would recommend that a farmer not only plant something that’s valuable for pollinators but also plant something that can make money for them – cuphea is one of those at the moment,” said Forcella.

Like people, bees and pollinators need to have a diversity of plants in their diet.

Other crops that are popular with pollinators are canola and winter camelina. In addition to providing a cover for fields to prevent erosion, winter camelina blooms early in the spring to provide early nutrition, said Forcella.

Funding for the program will be provided through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Money will be used to promote conservation practices that provide safe and diverse food sources for honey bees and other pollinators.

Cory Walker, USDA district conservationist, said farmers have already contacted him to ask questions about the USDA program. Walker said it will focus on native plants and building nutrition sources close to existing apiaries.

Farmers and ranchers interested in applying for the program can fill out an EQIP application at their local USDA. Applications for the program are due by March 21, 2014.