by Toni Burnham
All over North America, and probably the world, beekeepers like you are having wonderful ideas and are trying creative and inspiring projects to help honey bees and other pollinators. Mostly our reach is local and though we hear about important academic research, and the occasional corporate commitments to helping honey bee health, we may not feel or act in connection with it, or have the far-reaching impact that pollinators need. The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) Conference is an annual two-day event where efforts like ours coalesce: bringing all sorts of players, ideas, resources, and momentum together to take these efforts to a whole new scale: one with potential for changing the entire game.
The NAPPC Conference takes place each year in October in the Washington, DC area: this year, hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture right on the National Mall. Past meetings have been hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and even the U.S. State Department. These relationships and locations have been one of the keys to ensuring the long term and substantive presence of national leaders in the work to protect pollinators.
I participated in the conference for the first time this year, and would like to share both information and individual impressions from this event, believing that what is discussed and planned here will influence the activities and opportunities around beekeeping across the continent in the year to come.
A conference of many parts
Before the meetings, there are the awards, which provide a powerful introduction to NAPPC’s interest in finding, supporting, and promoting original initiatives that protect and promote pollinators. The list of recipients included a lawyer from Florida, an architecture firm in Toronto, farmers from South Dakota and Alberta, and a scientist from Mexico who worked on issues ranging from creating tax incentives for bee habitat to hotels for native pollinators, breaking up our monocultural plains for sustainable farming and pollinator forage, and saving the home grounds of the Monarch.
Like most things at NAPPC, an award is not just an award, it is a catalyst: one recipient of the Pollinator Advocate Award, Julie Zahniser, of American Bee Project to use tax incentives to increase the habitat available to honey bees, tweeted: “[At NAPPC] A woman from the U.S. Forest Service came up to me – and said that she had received a call that morning from the White House – They think our bee project is an idea that has the potential of preserving hundreds of millions of acres of land for bees and want to collaborate with us!” Zahniser shares this award with Canadian firm Sustainable.TO, who developed a network of bee condos in Toronto, and Mexican Pollinator Advocate Dr. Pablo Jaramillo who has worked with local farmers to restore the Oyamel forests for overwintering monarchs. South Dakota farmer Sam Heikes and his daughter Heidi received the Farmer-Rancher Award for innovations that brought sunflowers, sustainable farming, and a bee-supported CSA to the monoculture-dominated Great Plains, and the Coens of Alberta’s Grassroots Family Farm, who wove permaculture and pollinator forage into pastures for cattle to receive the Pollinator Conservation Award.
Later on, during the members-only meeting, NAPPC attendees learned about the outcomes of another kind of award, Honey Bee Health Project funding for innovative and important work to understand and promote genetic stock improvements, understand and promote best management practices for commercial beekeeping, and promote forage opportunities for colonies on public and private land. 2014 grantees looked for new tools to research winter hardiness by analyzing hemolymph, potential exposures to neonics in fluids released by corn (even though it is not a bee pollinated plant), how the behavior and level of work performed by bees is affected by poor nutrition and drought, citizen science use of nematodes to control small hive beetle, and the value of pollen diversity to bumble bees. These studies brought new research tools and methods, as well as new perceptions of known threats, to a community of empowered advocates in a position to do something about them.
The mention of the non-public sessions highlights another feature of the NAPPC conference: most of day one is devoted to public presentations that illustrate the state of the effort to promote pollinator health today by government, science, and industry. The rest of the conference is a member-only conclave devoted to delivering future tools and insights.
The public session is free (registration required, though and they set the tone for both parts in important and exciting ways: this year, the June 20 Presidential Memorandum bringing federal action to bear on collaboration, science, practical management and research goals visibly animated many of the government-side presenters and participants: opening up new resources in habitat, project planning, and investment across the nation. Among the directives that open up federal lands, mandate pollinator plantings on government property, assessing the affects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators, educating the public about pollinators, and more on an agency by agency basis.
A presentation by Peter Beesley of Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) seemed to me to demonstrate (in a most inspiring manner) the direction which some of these actions could take. PGE is one of the founding members of “Business for Bees,” creating a network of businesses taking action to foster the recovery and sustainment of pollinators and their habitat and bringing a “pollinator ethic” to land management. What does this mean? PGE is turning its right of ways into pollinator forage, and re-landscaping real estate, with the help of native plant and pollinator specialists (and employee volunteers), to reduce water use, decrease erosion, and increase the green impact of their holdings. Exactly what the White House is asking agencies to do on a national scale.
I was deeply interested in taking a look at the role of the corporate participants in the conference, since their sponsorships are important to the effectiveness of the effort but findings about pollinator health might come out contrary to business goals. Talking to many participants, it seems typical that the corporate side is not a lot different from the participation of bureaucrats and even beekeepers. There are many that are there, like PGE, out of sincere interest and an openness to real solutions, and others which are there for PR and the promotion of particular goals and opinions. The conference is unusual in getting stuff done anyway.
And the neonicotinoid issue was certainly on the program. Talking to Dr. Jeff Pettis of USDA/ARS, “Over the years, the discussions of declining pollinator health at the conference have consistently included a role for pesticides, among multiple factors. But today pesticides have moved up the list in those considerations. NAPPC brings multiple government players to the table as that happens.”
The beekeeping industry concurs: Tim Tucker of the American Beekeeping Federation also touched on this, mentioning that “we need to get back to IPM, but a ban is not realistic: We must provide crop protection but we must be wise.” And it needs to be noted: the EPA’s positive and sincere participation in the area of honey bee health has only increased, both at NAPPC and across the board, and this would not be the case if there was not a significant reason to look at pesticide impacts on losses.
The heart of NAPPC
The factor that distinguishes NAPPC from any other conference I have attended is not that it has both public and private sessions, but that there is a unique reason for the latter and how they are used to build the tools and pollinator protection coalitions of the future.
At its heart are task forces created by the board to take on specific pro-pollinator projects. The gorgeous posters and helpful brochures that you may have used in classrooms or in outreach, as well as efforts to improve pollinator forage or science originate in these short-term, cross-discipline, and highly specific teams.
This article will not discuss the conversations or work of any individual task force, because their confidentiality provides the freedom for participants to comment, collaborate, and brainstorm with maximum effect.
Confession: arriving at my first NAPPC conference was a little like joining an action movie about 20 minutes in because of these ongoing projects: almost all the players know each other, have an agenda, and need to get something done…it takes a while to come up to their speed. This is how I think it works.
Many conferences provide the opportunity to network and brainstorm: at a NAPPC conference they ask you to sign up to do something meaningful and specific, they provide you critical tools to get the job done, and then they stay with you to make sure it happens. One task force participant shared with me that “No one wants to get to the next conference with little or nothing done. And everyone is busy. So you break it down: one person chases down a metric for how much of something there is out there, another person drafts a text, everyone delegates and volunteers and delivers, and important things get done.” Everything from a pollinator stamp to a reliable assessment of the status of North American pollinators to better forage to an improved understanding of the vectors of honey bee diseases. And those gorgeous posters and brochures.
As a longtime local activist, the powerful realization for me was that this task force put me in the room with folks who were either doing or had connection to similar projects across the continent, and instead of duplicating or overlapping, we were being provided a chance to reinforce and to scale nationally. I had a ton to contribute, but at least as much to learn (and to bring home).
A conference that doesn’t actually end?
I’d like to close this article where most pieces about NAPPC begin – it is a collaborative group of over 130 organizations and individuals that seek to encourage the health of all pollinating animals in North America, and the annual conference is the largest single project of the organization. The NAPPC Conference is 14 years old, and attracts several hundred attendees from beekeepers to bureaucrats to grad students to the heads of government agencies to understand and work on pollinator health. By cleverly placing the conference geographically, scientifically, politically, economically and strategically at the crossroads of where pollinators and the people who manage, depend on, and study them need to be, and then keeping them in contact with ongoing tasks, NAPPC creates a dynamic conversation and collaboration that goes on long after the lights are turned off in Washington DC.
Toni Burnham keeps bees on rooftops in the Washington, DC area where she lives.