Bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators struggling in the face of disappearing habitat and other threats have a new ally in the form of pheasants, which are experiencing their own long-term decline even after last year’s rebound.

The ally, more specifically, is Pheasants Forever, which is hosting a ­pollinator symposium Friday, “Bees, Butterflies, Birds and You,” featuring eight top pollinator experts at the organization’s National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The presentation is free to the public.

Pheasant Fest, focusing on wildlife conservation, upland game bird habitat, dog training, and habitat management and restoration, continues through the weekend and is expected to draw some 30,000 visitors.

Pheasants Forever also will use the gathering to announce the launch of the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, which will offer landowners in Minnesota and five other states rental payments, free seed and other incentives to establish pollinator-friendly habitats on underperforming acres. The introduction of the fund, which Pheasants Forever co-founded and has support from agribusiness companies, commercial beekeepers and the honey-packing industry will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday on the habitat stage at Pheasant Fest.

Pheasants Forever has taken up the cause because pollinators and upland game birds thrive in the same kind of habitat.

“Pollinators need, whether you’re talking about monarch butterflies, honeybees or native bees, the exact kind of habitat that we need to have the best pheasant and quail habitat,” said Pete Berthelsen, director of habitat partnerships for Pheasants Forever. “It’s a real unique fit and a real opportunity to explain to our Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever members how great pollinator habitat is the same kind of ­habitat we want.”

Berthelsen described that as “high-quality, high-diversity” habitat with green succulents or flowering plants that will attract small insects, which he said make up 95 percent of the diet of pheasant and quail chicks. It also makes for ideal brood rearing habitat and good nesting cover.

“When they become an adult and they reach the fall they can switch over to plants, corn and soybeans and things like that,” Berthelsen said. “But as a young growing chick, they need an energy pack, and that energy pack is small soft-bodied insects.”

In addition to Minnesota, the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, which has raised $1.3 million, will work with landowners to establish pollinator habitats in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota, Berthelsen said. The fund expands on a two-year pilot program that covered close to 2,000 acres in the Dakotas.

“It certainly will have benefits for pheasants and quail, but those states are critically important for honeybees and monarch butterflies,” Berthelsen said. “We hope to ­continue that expansion in the future.”

The decline of pollinators, critical for food crop and plant production, has been attributed to risks including pesticide exposure and loss of habitat, with the latter cause also cited in the downward trend in Minnesota’s pheasant population. While the state index was up 29 percent last year after a mild winter, it is still 14 percent below the 10-year average and 48-percent below the long-term average. That’s due to a historic loss of grassland, mostly to farming.

Minnesota’s state-level focus is to enroll 100 to 250 acres of habitat projects in the inaugural field season of the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, said Matt Holland, Pheasant Forever’s director of grant development. The effort will prioritize an eight-county area with high densities of honeybee hives: Douglas, Kandiyohi, Meeker, Otter Tail, Pope, ­Stearns, Todd and Wright.

“There may be some of the least-productive ground from a row crop perspective that they may be interested in restoring,” Holland said of landowners. “They may have old pasture or other grasslands that are not native prairie that they may be interested in ­renovating and putting into this program.”

More information on participating or supporting the effort will be available at a Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund booth operating throughout Pheasant Fest, Holland said. A landowner help desk will have information on conservation programs with biologists on hand to review aerial photos and discuss options.

Dan Cariveau, an assistant professor working at the University of Minnesota’s Bee and Pollinator Research Lab, said he would research how the new habitats work out, with a focus on finding out which plants are most beneficial for which types of bees.

“(Bees) need good food resources throughout the whole season,” Cariveau said. “Bees that have good food sources often have more robust immune systems. We view habitat as a really critical piece. I’m excited about Pheasants Forever because they’re working to get a lot of this back on the ground.”

 

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer from Woodbury. Reach him at todd_nelson@mac.com.