Comment: Congress needs to fully fund bees’ highway habitat

Providing bees and butterflies with habitat along U.S. highways can assure their pollination work.

By Sam Cochrane / For The Herald

Spring will soon give way to summer in Washington state, continuing an abundance of bird song and greenery and the hum of pollinators as a harbinger of the bountiful season ahead. But that hum is much quieter than it used to be, because bees and butterflies are endangered.

Their savior may be an unlikely source: our highways.

Bees are responsible for much of our food. A report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 90 percent of wild plants and 75 percent of all food crops rely on animal pollinators to some extent, and bees are considered nature’s best. In Washington, flowering crops including apples, blueberries and grapes rely especially on the work of native bees.

Yet over the past few decades, native and cultivated honey bee populations have cratered due to habitat loss, disease and the use of pesticides. An estimated 95 percent of Washington’s Western bumblebees have disappeared since the mid-1990s, due in large part to the outbreak of disease from honey bee colonies. Beekeepers across the country have reported growing mortality rates, exacerbating concerns over the sustainability of our food production systems.

The iconic monarch butterfly is in trouble too. Since the 1980s, the number of western monarchs making the journey to coastal California has dropped by a startling 90 percent. A significant factor in monarchs’ decline is the rapid loss of milkweed, the only food that sustains monarch caterpillars. To recover, butterflies and bees alike need protective, sustaining habitats: places they can eat their favorite plants, mate and reproduce, and avoid harmful pesticides.

It turns out one of the best places for habitat may be roadsides and rights-of-way. State departments of transportation manage an estimated 17 million acres of roadsides. The Monarch and Pollinator Highway Program, authorized in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, targets these areas for the creation of pollinator habitat, providing resources for states and Native American tribes to establish native grasses, wildflowers and milkweed. The program was originally designed to allocate $25 million in funding, but when it was implemented last December, Congress only provided $3 million.

Soon, state departments of transportation will be able to apply for grants to create roadside pollinator habitat; infrastructure for insects.

As chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has an opportunity to advocate for Washiongton’s pollinators and those throughout America. By increasing the funding for the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Program to $25 million, states will be able to establish 250,000 acres of pollinator habitat each year.

The program’s current funding is small. By comparison, in 2020 alone, state and local governments spent $204 billion on highways and roads. However, the impact on our fragile web of life could be huge. With more investment, our public lands can support healthier populations of bees, butterflies, songbirds and other wildlife, while creating more aesthetically pleasing roadways. With a greatly reduced need for mowing, states can also lower their maintenance costs.

By investing in our pollinators, Sen. Murray can reverse the fate of the struggling Western bumblebee. By planting native plant species, wildflowers and milkweed along our roads, Washington can ensure that the western monarch butterfly has a home to reproduce, preserving one of nature’s most beautiful spring rituals and strengthening our vital connection with the natural world.

Sam Cochorane is a staff member with Environment Washington, advocating for clean air, clean water, clean energy, wildlife and open spaces, and a livable climate.

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