Episode 4 includes an interview with Erin Rupp, founder and executive director of Pollinate Minnesota, an organization committed to teaching and advocating on behalf of pollinators.

Podcast Transcript

MINDSAILING: So welcome back, again, to the Currents and Currencies podcast. This is the podcast for leaders who are navigating the market sea change. Currents and Currencies is produced by the team at Mindsailing, an innovation agency based in Minneapolis that helps brands sail industry and cultural sea change with marketing communications and innovation strategies. Today I'm joined by Erin Rupp from Pollinate Minnesota, which is an organization committed to fostering education and policy change around pollinators, also known as bees. So today Erin's going to talk to us a little bit about her organization, the things that they're committed to doing, and, most importantly, probably, how they're navigating sea change in what is a very-- you could say "tumultuous" area of agriculture in our natural ecosystem today. So, with Erin, let's start kind of at the top. And what is the mission and purpose of Pollinate Minnesota?

ERIN RUPP: I run pollinate Minnesota. I started it in January (2015). And we're working towards a better Minnesota for pollinators and people. And I started beekeeping in 2007 and fell in love with them. If anybody has ever kept bees before, they're really-- or worked a hive or hung out with them, they're so different than us and so wonderful -- I don't know. They're really engaging, and they hook you in, and then you change your whole life to have a beekeeping business. [LAUGH] Or at least that's what happened to me. And I've been an informal science educator for a long time and found bees and my love for them grew. And using bees as a teaching tool is really exciting, because all of us know something about bees. And a lot of that knowledge is fear. You know-- they can sting, they can protect themselves. And if you put people in beekeeping suits and hang out with bees, it's an opportunity for empowerment, to get over that fear. And bees are really critical to the food that we eat. They're pollinating a third of our-- well, all of our fruits and nuts and vegetables, pretty much. And they're having a hard time. And so that education is pretty key right now. And the need for policy change is also key. And I started doing advocacy work a few years ago and really liked that, too. So kind of formed this organization around those two things. To help make things easier to be a bee.

MINDSAILING: Awesome. So tell me a little bit more about that. You mentioned it being kind of a hard time to be a bee right now. What are some of the major shifts that we're seeing? I mean, obviously, you know, in this podcast we try and talk a lot about sea change, because that's-- you know, epic forces that are acting upon our environments and our surroundings and are having an impact on how we think about the ways that we lead our lives. So as you think about pollinators-- I'm going to try and start calling them "pollinators"-- what are some of the major shifts that we're seeing in their world?

ERIN RUPP: We rely on honeybees for our agricultural fruit and nut and vegetable production, because we're growing in monocultures. And we've been growing in monocultures for a long time, but the way that those monocultures have shifted is-- we're feeling the repercussions of it with pollinators, right now, really acutely. So in Minnesota we lost over 50% of our hives last year, because they don't have enough food to eat, because we've transitioned ecosystems to eliminate flowers in those spaces. So, farmland-- we're doing our hardest, our best, to eliminate everything but that crop in that ecosystem. And a lot of the weeds that compete with things like corn or soy or your other vegetables are things that flower and are delicious for pollinators. And then we're treating those ecosystems with pesticides. And then a lot of those chemicals are designed to be toxic to insects. And they're toxic to pollinators, too. And bees are pollinators. Bees are super-good pollinators, because they're intentionally gathering pollen, because it's great food for their babies. But there's a lot of other insects that are pollinators, too. And in Minnesota we have over 425 different kinds of bees. So all of these bees have lived here. And kind of the thing that's going on with bees now is, people are really aware of it. And I think, in terms of the sea change that's happening now, we're caring more about the food that we eat. We all eat. We've all always ate. [LAUGH] And we care more about the ways that food comes to us-- the systems that produce it, the hands that produce it, the insects that do work to produce it, the soil that produces it, the water. And we're thinking about ways that that system can change. And with bees it highlights the need that that system has to change. Because right now, without bees-- and in some parts of the world there aren't very many insect pollinators, and people have to do this work, moving pollen to the sticky stigma, the female part of the flower next door. And that pollen travels down, fertilizes an egg in the ovary of that flower, and grows into a seed. And that ovary gets really big and delicious and becomes a fruit. And having hands do that work is intense. [LAUGH] Instead of little insect legs and furry bodies. They're way more efficient than we are at it. A monoculture is a farm where you're growing one crop. So if you're driving in the country, in most parts of the US, and you look out your window and you see a farm, you're probably seeing a whole, like, acres of one thing. In the Midwest, we see corn and we see soy. That's a monoculture. Yeah. There's polycultures, and a lot of small CSA vegetable farmers are this. There's a lot of different models for farming, historically. Yeah. So growing a lot of things that will have flowers that will bloom at different times of the year. If you're growing a monoculture of almonds, all those almonds are still plants. And they bloom at the time of year when almonds bloom, which is, like, February, March-- more February.
So if you're a pollinator that lives in an almond orchard, you have a feast to eat in February. Right? And then you don't have anything at all to eat for the rest of the year. Yeah.

MINDSAILING: So what was interesting, there, Erin, as you were sort of summarizing the issue at hand, it struck me when you were talking about monocultures. That seems like a really interesting concept. And I guess one that maybe people don't often realize is that, for honeybees, they need food year-round. And when there's only food during the time at which whatever the crop is comes to bear fruit or it's ready, monocultures actually then spend the rest of the year not serving the bees with any food. And that's a huge issue.

ERIN RUPP: Yeah, absolutely. And honeybees are one of our type of pollinators. And a lot of these native bees that live in Minnesota also need places in that field to be able to mate and be able to have a home. And in places that look like most of our farms, these days, that's really hard to find. Honeybees will fly two to three miles away from their hive to gather food. And a lot of our native pollinators don't go quite that far. So they need little edges that are planted with something other than that crop that you're planting, to be able to live in. If you have some other flowering plants in that edge, then you have food to eat during that time of year when you were saying, Tony, when that crop isn't in bloom. Yeah. And it's before the crop fruits when the time that bees are really important is. So these are there when the flowers are there, because that's the food that they eat-- the nectar and pollen from the flowers. And then they do the work inadvertently, because they're hungry, moving this pollen around to help those plants grow seeds and fruits.

MINDSAILING: So, yeah. I mean, just to put a real fine point on it, I mean, bees need to eat flowers, or the pollen and flowers, all year round. And monocultures flower once a year, usually. And so that causes problems. That's an issue. You know, I think as well as we're talking through this, the difficulties that our honeybees are encountering are becoming more apparent. You know, I'd ask, what are some of the opportunities, at the same time? So there's challenges, but what are some of the opportunities that are emerging?

ERIN RUPP: Yeah. I want to share something else about that monocultures story and bees. So we rely on honeybees to do this work, because we manage them and because they have really huge populations, compared to our other pollinators. So one colony of honeybees can have 50,000 individuals in it.
And they choose to live in this box that we may have seen. It's like a stack of boxes. It's called the Langstroth hive. And beekeepers, a lot of their income these days comes from pollination services. So they're moving the same hive all around the country to do the work moving pollen around to grow those seeds and fruits.

MINDSAILING: So it's interesting, Erin, you bring that up when you talk about-- that pollinators make a good portion of their income doing pollination services or completing pollination services for farmers, it sounds like. Is it fair to say-- or would a good way to summarize this be that a lot of the fruits and vegetables that we see in the supermarket actually are the result of pollination services?

ERIN RUPP: Yeah. And the result of beekeepers moving honeybees around, and the result of honeybees because of the way we're growing. Yeah, absolutely.

MINDSAILING: Now, for someone who is not familiar with that process, what does that look like? Say I'm a farmer-- give me an example. I'm a farmer somewhere. What does that look like?

ERIN RUPP: You're a farmer in California, and you're growing almonds, and you're part of a number of other farmers that are growing 80% of the world's almonds in that region of the world. And almonds are 100% insect-pollinated, so you hire a beekeeper-- maybe several beekeepers. You pay them $200 per hive to have their hives there before almonds bloom. And they truck their almonds from places like Minnesota and the Dakotas and Montana and other places around the country. They put-- I think you can fit about 50 hives on a semi. You load them up. You drive for two days straight. You stop to go to the bathroom, but not much else. You get to California, you unload your bees, they get there before the almonds are blooming. And then that field is just almonds. Right? There isn't anything else to eat there. So you feed your bees, so they don't die in the time that they're waiting. And then-- Yeah. You have them there for the bloom. You move them out after the bloom's done. And most commercial beekeepers, we talk about almonds a lot, because we're growing so many of them in northern California and most commercial beekeepers in the country move bees to almonds. Because it's hard to be a bee, these days. And that $200 a hive is a pretty significant chunk of your annual income.

MINDSAILING: As we think about-- you know, I go into my grocery store and have just noticed the explosion in almond butter. I mean, it used to be like there was one jar, maybe, you'd find, and now there's a whole shelf full of this stuff. And people are always talking about it, because it doesn't have the inflammation properties-- doesn't cause inflammation like peanut butter does, supposedly. I don't know much about the medical side. So, as all of that's happening, it all cascades down to, we need more almonds, which means we need more bees, which means all of this stuff is moving across the country. Is that a fair way to summarize it?

ERIN RUPP: Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. I think about vegans. Vegans are anti-bee and don't eat honey, right? But I think a significant portion of their diet is all of this almond-based stuff. And you can't really get almonds-- I mean, organic almonds are grown in northern California, too, pretty many of them, and rely on people moving bees in the same way. You need to rethink the way your farm is structured if you want to not move bees. We don't have to rely on honeybees, if you have, like, diverse ecosystem around your farm and in the middle of your farm and you support native pollinators there. You also support all these other beneficial insects that eat things, like the things that you eat your almonds or your almonds leaves or your almonds flowers or-- I don't know that much about the pest side of agriculture. But, yeah, there's a lot of good that you can do just by diversifying your farm.

MINDSAILING: So maybe talking more about this opportunity side. This is the question I wanted to ask you. What are some of the opportunities that have arisen with these recent shifts in the bee ecosystem?

ERIN RUPP: They're so small and tiny and fuzzy and different from us. And everybody has seen a bee, right? Because they can live all over. And we care about them, and we care about what's happening with them. And I think we care about them on this human level because they're small and fuzzy and we like them, or we're scared about them and then care about them a little bit because of that. But then there's this huge economic link, too, right? With all of our fruit and vegetable production. Almost all of it, right? Yeah. So there is that care there, too. And I think we're communicating with each other a lot more these days about all the things that are wrong in the world and about how to fix them. And some of those things feel kind of intangible. And with honeybees it's very tangible.
All this stuff is second-grade stuff. Right? We learn about insect life cycles when we're small. And I do a lot of elementary-school education, and it's fun to do it with insects, because you know you're going to go outside and you're going to see somebody. Right? And that is a great teaching tool. And we're familiar with them. And there is something about this issue and hope that's a little bit different than other issues and feels really exciting.

MINDSAILING: So, I guess, tell me about some of that hope. What are some of the efforts that you've been involved and that Pollinate Minnesota's been involved with that have helped to move things forward on the behalf of bees?

ERIN RUPP: So the way that we regulate pesticides is done at the state level, in almost all of our states in the US. So there's laws on the books in Minnesota and many other states that say that only the state can regulate pesticides and everything to do with them. But there's a lot of cities that have come out with pollinator-friendly resolutions that say, on the land that we own and manage we're going to do our best for bees. We're going to not use insecticides. We're going to plant more forage for bees. And Minneapolis, just this last month, became a pollinator-friendly community. So the city council voted unanimously to support that work. Which is awesome. We went through and met with a lot of the different city staff and looked at the places where Minneapolis manages land. And they already aren't using very many insecticides, because they're expensive. And, I mean, governing bodies don't have that many dollars these days. But they were so supportive of this issue being really important and saw the space where they could take actions to change. And that's what I've been seeing in different places, talking to legislators at the state level. And they're really excited about how to support pollinators. There's a little bit of political disagreement about the best ways to do it, because one of the major causes of pollinator decline is something that is tied to a lot of money-making, right? So pesticides are-- especially the systemic class of neonicotinoids-- are toxic to pollinators. There's scientific consensus around their toxicity to honeybees, both at an acute level and then sublethally, too. And there's companies that manufacture those pesticides-- Bayer and Syngenta. Monsanto sells them. And those are big political spaces. Right? And have a lot of say and lobbyists who are paid to be at the capital. And for me, I'm running this small nonprofit and can be there sometimes, but also I'm teaching sometimes. And [LAUGH] just in trying to grow this organization, and so can't be there as much as those lobbyists can be. Pollinators are declining because of pesticides, but then because there's not very many flowers and ecosystems. They have this mite, too, that sucks their blood and reproduces and vectors diseases and is a parasite in their hive. And pesticides are really a major part of that. Just yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there-- there's a chemical that was approved by the EPA, on a conditional basis, that is very similar to a nicotinoid. It's not one of them. But the Court of Appeals ruled that the EPA was premature in saying that this chemical could be on the market and vacated its approval of it. Which means that this chemical is banned. They're pulling it from the shelves. And the neonicotinoids that are toxic to pollinators were approved in the same way by the EPA, they were given conditional approval and then just pushed on into the market. Yeah, so it's a really exciting decision. And I think that there's exciting decisions happening in all kinds of spaces-- at the city, in neighborhoods. The other exciting thing about pollinators is that we're told as individuals all the time that everything's our fault [LAUGH] and that we're the ones who need to make the change in order to save the world. And I do think that there are things that consumers can do and we as individuals can do. But I resent the, like-- it's all on our shoulders. Because there are bigger systems at play, right? And with bees you can really plant flowers in your own spaces and have those flowers be chemical-free and manage your lawn organically and feed the bees in your neighborhood. Right? Support the populations of insects in your spaces. And I think that's really exciting, to have this thing that we're told our whole lives be something that carries weight. Yeah. And that ties back into the hope, right? That the things that you can do do make tangible change that you can see.

MINDSAILING: So, for somebody who's interested in that bigger-picture piece, getting involved to help with the policy-change side of things, what can they do? I mean, here in Minnesota, what can they do to help further that cause to further the goals of your organization and really its work in general?

ERIN RUPP: You can connect with me. I'm working on having my website be a nice space to learn more about what's going on. So, pollinatemn.org.
The other thing-- like, our elected officials hear from some folks more than others, right? --and some companies more than others, just because some of us have lots of money [LAUGH] and can pay people to be there. But as a constituent, if you're talking to your elected officials, they care about that. And if you call them and say hey, this is an issue that I as an eater find very important, or, uh-- yeah. And all of those folks really are interested in making time for you, because you voted for them, right? You put them there, and they want to continue to be there. And so if you talk to them about the issues they care about, they listen. And you can do that in a letter. You can do that in a phone call. If you're in an area where you're close to where your elected officials are, you can ask to meet with them. And-- yeah. And also, I mean, they're at home sometimes, too. Right? So ask them to come home and meet with you and talk with you about this. They like doing that work. And it's important work for them. Right?

MINDSAILING: Yeah, those are some great words of advice and, I guess, maybe some things that we don't think about as much as we should. I'd like to thank Erin Rupp, who is the director of Pollinate Minnesota, for joining us today. You can find out more about them at pollinatemn.org. And also some of the great work that they'll be doing. Please subscribe to the podcast and listen for upcoming episodes that will explore more ideas relating to innovation and navigating the market sea change. In the meantime, you can learn more about Mindsailing at mindsailing.com.