House bills aim to protect Michigan’s pollinators

Pollinators are in decline. Advocates hope to support them by banning certain pesticides from use on public lands and protecting milkweed.
A honeybee (Apis mellifera) sips nectar from an aster in a butterfly garden. Stock photo.

Two bills introduced in the Michigan House are intended to save pollinators—and, by extension, help protect Michigan’s crops and biodiversity. One targets a type of pesticide, and the other focuses on milkweed, a plant that monarch butterflies need to survive. 

H.B. 4858 bans neonicotinoid pesticides from being used on public lands. Neonicotinoids (or “neonics”) are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, and they are used both in agriculture and urban and suburban landscapes. Neonics are intended to kill the insects that destroy plants, but they can also kill bees, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators that benefit plants. 

The second bill, H.B. 4857, specifies that milkweed cannot be considered a noxious weed. The bill amends a law that deals with the noxious weeds that Michigan municipalities set out to control and eradicate.

Both bills were introduced in June and referred to the House Committee on Agriculture. They may be considered part of a broader movement to protect pollinators at the federal, state, local, and individual levels—including initiatives to plant milkweed and other native plants, and to avoid using pesticides that harm pollinators.

Neonicotinoid pesticides

Neonics differ from other pesticides in that their effect is systemic—meaning that all of a plant’s tissues take up the chemicals. 

“The pesticide is within the plant, so if a monarch caterpillar eats milkweed that’s been treated with neonics, it’s gonna die,” Patrick Fitzgerald, senior director of community habitat at the National Wildlife Federation, told Planet Detroit.   

Neonicotinoids are applied as a seed coating and sprayed on plants. These pesticides are toxic to pollinators and aquatic invertebrates and are often found in soil and water. They have also been detected in people’s urine, and some research suggests that neonics may harm children’s health. The European Union banned the outdoor use of neonicotinoids in 2018.

H.B. 4858 amends Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. It directs the Department of Natural Resources to “report to the legislature on the latest published and peer-reviewed evidence on whether the outdoor application of neonicotinoid pesticides is safe for monarch butterflies, other pollinators, beneficial insects, the environment, and public health.”

About 465 species of bees live in Michigan, including native and non-native species. Both types pollinate crops and suffer from unusually high death rates, according to Meghan Milbrath, coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative at Michigan State University.

The health of Michigan’s specialty crops – think cherries, blueberries, and apples – hinges on bees. 

“Because Michigan is one of the top honey-producing states and because it has so many specialty crops,” Michigan is one of the most important states for bees in the country, Milbrath said.

Pollinator garden in Rochester Municipal Park.

Milbrath explained that most of the crop pollination is done by non-native European honeybees that beekeepers keep in hives and take around to different crops. But the problems they face, including pesticides, pathogens, parasites, and an overall loss of flowers from the landscape, also harm native bees and other pollinators, including moths and butterflies, she said. These problems also interact with each other.

“We’ve got developments going in, and we’ve got lawns, and we’ve got changing agriculture—we’re just continuously converting land that was supportive to pollinators and making it unsupportive,” Milbrath said.

While beekeepers keep their honeybee colonies fed, the native bees don’t have anyone to feed them. They have a limited range to go elsewhere, so “they’re going to be much more susceptible to things like climate change and loss of habitat,” Milbrath said.

Milbrath said that bees are vital, but a common misconception is that you can help save the bees by becoming a beekeeper. 

“I’m myself a beekeeper. I teach beekeeping. I love beekeeping. But it is a form of agriculture with a non-native species, and having more beekeepers doesn’t help the issue,” she explained. 

“And it actually, if not done responsibly, can have a negative effect, because you can have competition with native bees in certain cases.”

Milkweed and monarchs

The monarch butterfly depends on milkweed for its survival because it is the butterfly’s only host plant—the only thing that monarch caterpillars eat. About 12 species of milkweed are native to Michigan. 

H.B. 4857 helps ensure municipalities will not target milkweed as part of their weed control. 

Across the country, “at the local level, there are still many cities that consider milkweed a noxious plant that can’t be grown over 11 inches tall or 9 inches tall, which is not that great for the milkweed,” Fitzgerald said.

At the local level, the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, launched in 2015, has engaged cities and communities in monarch and pollinator conservation, and it has helped create more than 10,000 acres of habitat, Fitzgerald said. 

The municipalities in Michigan that have signed the pledge are Ann Arbor, Eaton Rapids, Grosse Pointe Park, Lake Orion, Madison Heights, Plymouth, Rochester, Rochester Hills, Sterling Heights, Troy, West Bloomfield, and Westland.

Marilyn Trent, founder of the nonprofit Rochester Pollinators, said she was excited that the Rochester mayor signed the pledge because it offers a blueprint for changing public land usage. Rochester Pollinators works to save native pollinators by restoring their natural habitats in home landscapes and gardens.

“The butterflies—they bring joy to people’s lives, and all they’re asking for is not to starve them and poison them,” Trent said.

Marilyn Trent in the Rochester Pollinators garden in downtown Rochester.

On a micro level, individual people have many ways to support monarchs and other pollinators—like planting milkweed and other native plants in whatever space they have available, even if it’s in a pot on a balcony. 

“A lot of times, people don’t think they can do very much because they don’t have a lot of space,” but small changes can make a difference when making the landscape more supportive of pollinators, Milbrath said. 

Along with individual and municipal efforts, statewide legislation is important “because the state and government can make changes faster,” Trent said. “Just trying to do it one city at a time is very slow.”

People’s motivations to protect pollinators may vary—from supporting Michigan farmers to enjoying butterflies. 

“I think we protect monarchs and pollinators because they’re beautiful, and they’re amazing, and the monarch’s migration and metamorphosis is just, in and of itself, worthy of protecting and having in the world,” Fitzgerald said. “Ultimately, the problems that pollinators are facing will impact other wildlife and us.”

Learn more about the importance of pollinators and what you can do to help through MSU’s Pollinator Champions program.


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