Farm Transitions: Valuing Sustainable Practices—Pollinator and Beneficial Insect Habitat

One of the biggest stories in the agricultural press during the past several years has been the decline of domesticated honey bee populations all over the United States. Wild bee populations are also in decline due to loss of habitat, and this poses risks for agricultural crops that depend on bees for pollination. Insect pollination results in $26.9 billion in crop value per year (1) (see Pollinator & Beneficial Insect Services text box).

A key strategy to counter declines in pollinators is to plant and maintain habitats that promote and protect them by providing nectar and pollen, shelter, and protection from agricultural chemicals (2). Pollinator habitats can attract domestic honeybees, but also wild bees and other wild beneficial insect species. These beneficial species include many different wasps, beetles, lacewings, predatory mites, and more. Beneficial insects prey upon the kinds of insects that damage crops, so keeping them around can help reduce pesticide applications. Wild beneficial insects protect an estimated $4.5 billion per year in crop value by reducing insect pest damage (3).

Pollinator habitat is recognized as critically important by the USDA, and programs are available that offer cost-share for habitat establishment as well as annual contract payments (4). Privately funded cost-sharing and contracts are also available in some areas (5).

Pollinator and beneficial insect habitats can sometimes use marginal or poor cropland. In those cases, the loss of income from corn or soybeans will be less than it would be on prime cropland. There can be benefits to having pollinator/beneficial insect habitat right within prime cropland areas, however. Having beneficial insects living close to crops can reduce damage from insect pests. If the crop is dependent on insect pollination, it makes sense to have pollinators nearby. There are also potential soil and water quality benefits. Research in Iowa shows that strategically placing narrow strips of native prairie species within crop fields, on as little as 10% of the crop field acreage can reduce sediment movement by 95% and water runoff by 60%. The strips, which provide prime habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects, also provide greater soil and water conservation benefits than expected from the size of the strips (6) (see Habitat Costs text box).

If pollinator/beneficial insect habitat is something you want to see on your land in the future, then you can work pollinator habitat acreage into your farm transition plan. Federal, state, or private programs can support the cost of habitat creation and offset the loss of crop income from those acres. Rental agreements, leases, or sale terms should specify the boundaries of any established habitat planting and forbid damage to that area. See “Considerations for Landowners” in the Agroforestry section for more ideas for the farm transition plan. The points to consider are quite similar for agroforestry and habitat plantings.

Use the Pollinator & Beneficial Insect Habitat Cost/Benefit Table to estimate the value of establishing insect habitat on your farm.


(1) Insect Pollinated Crops, Insect Pollinators and US Agriculture: Trend Analysis of Aggregate Data for the Period 1992-2009. May 2012. Nicholas Calderone. PLoS-ONE7(5): e37235.

(2) Pollinators. Conservation Marketplace Midwest.
(accessed 8/21/13).

(3) The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects. 2006. John Losey and Mace Vaughan. BioScience 56(4):311-323.[311:TEVOES]2.0.CO;2

(4) Using Farm Bill Programs for Pollinator Conservation, Technical Note No. 78. August 2008. Mace Vaughan and Mark Skinner. The Xerces Society, USDA-NRCS, and San Francisco State University. (accessed 8/21/13).

(5) Pollinator Habitat Project with General Mills. April 2012. Linda Meschke. Conservation Marketplace Midwest.
(accessed 8/21/13).

(6) A Landowner’s Guide to Prairie Conservation Strips. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University. (accessed 8/21/13).

(7) Economic and Environmental Costs and Benefits of Living Snow Fences: Safety, Mobility, and Transportation Authority Benefits, Farmer Costs, and Carbon Impacts. February 2012. Gary Wyatt, University of Minnesota Extension; Minnesota Department of Transportation Research Services. (accessed 8/12/13).

Further Resources:

Alternative Pollinators: Native Bees. 2010.
Eric Mader, Mace Vaughan, Matthew Shepherd and Scott Hoffman Black. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and National Center for Appropriate Technology.
This publication provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings.

Pollinator Conservation. Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, Department of Entomology, University of Minnesota. (accessed 8/26/13).