It was a simple invitation from urban beekeepers, broadcast through Facebook and Twitter — come out on a frigid January night and talk about the fate of bees. Nearly 150 people showed up, more than twice what the donated room at a south Minneapolis restaurant could hold.

"I was astonished," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who was there to talk about legislation. "Something is going on."

In Minnesota, 2014 may be the year of the honeybee — and the bumble bee, the butterfly, the thrip, the wasp, and all the other pollinators whose declines are galvanizing a movement to protect them — before it's too late.

From the halls of the capitol to back yards to state and federal agencies, pollinator protections and habitat are being woven into conservation plans, guidance for farmers, state statutes and research projects. Even Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed funds for a new lab for Marla Spivak, one of the University of Minnesota's top bee researchers, plus $6 million to protect and restore prairies.

The worry about bees started in 2006 when hives across the country suddenly started to collapse, with losses of 30 to 50 percent a year. Since then, a flood of research has pinpointed a deadly combination of pesticides, diseases, and, perhaps most critically, the simple loss of enough flowers to supply pollen and nectar. The country has lost tens of millions of acres of grasslands and forests to development and agriculture. And the weeds that are the bane of farmers but sustain insects of all kinds have been eradicated by Roundup, used on millions of acres of crops genetically engineered to withstand it.

A grassroots effort

Without bees, there would be a lot less to eat. Honeybees pollinate the crops that provide 35 percent of the food that winds up on the table — apples, onions, cranberries, almonds and more — a service worth $15 billion to $18 billion to the ag industry. Wild insects do their part, as well, providing a service worth about $3 billion, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

"It wasn't until people understood the stark relationship to the food supply and the relationship to pesticides that the wave crested," said Bill Becker, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which administers $80 million in state environmental funding each year. "People poured forth with a desire to do things."

That's what Kristy Allen found out when she organized the meeting earlier this month to start an awareness campaign to protect urban bees. She started the Beez Kneez, a Minneapolis bicycle honey-delivery and bee education group. She and other nearby beekeepers lost hives last fall to fungicide from an unknown source. With help from Spivak at the university and an agriculture department investigation, she was able to identify the chemical. But state law protects the identities of pesticide users and application records.

"We wanted it to be something that people could mobilize around," she said. The meeting was so successful that she plans to hold another in April. She hopes the group can help redefine the urban landscape to one where, for example, dandelions are welcome.

"It's kind of a subversive suggestion," she said.

$2.25M for 10 projects

The same kind of thinking is underway at the Capitol. Last year the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that directed the agriculture department to come up with new guidance for farmers on preserving pollinator habitat. The federal Department of Agriculture is launching a similar program. And putting the needs of pollinators in every proposal is now required for projects funded by the Outdoor Heritage Council, which will use about $100 million this year to protect or restore 52,000 acres of Minnesota forests, wetlands and prairies. "It's a whole new world," Becker said.

But it's also become clear that while a lot is known about the domesticated honeybee, there are huge gaps in knowledge about the wild insects that live around humans almost unnoticed. What do they eat? How do pesticides affect them? And most importantly, how many are there?

The state's Environmental Trust Fund, which uses lottery money for research and conservation, is proposing $2.25 million for 10 projects related to bees and insects. Included is a survey by the Department of Natural Resources of the state's wild bees, which hasn't been done since 1919.

There are an estimated 300 to 400 species of wild bees native to Minnesota, she said, but there is no official list. Some are in serious decline, including the rusty patch and American bumblebees, but others could be in just as much trouble.

Other projects include the research by another university scientist on the effect of pesticides on honeybees, a new Bee Discovery Center at the Landscape Arboretum, and a prairie butterfly research and breeding program at the Minnesota Zoo for endangered species. "We have a century of research to catch up on," said Crystal Boyd, a natural resources specialist for the DNR.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394