On May 19, the White House released the ‘National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.’ The plan builds on the President’s 2014 establishment of an interagency task force between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a strategy to reduce honey bee colony losses, increase monarch butterfly numbers and restore pollinator habitat. Currently, honeybee colonies are at an all-time low, with 2014 losses reaching 40 percent of total honeybee populations in the United States.
Pollinators, such as honeybees, bats, butterflies and birds, contribute $15 billion to the U.S. economy every year and are responsible for pollinating about 30 percent of all food crops. Yet, commercial beekeepers have reported a 30 to 40 percent colony loss every winter since 2006, more than double the previously recorded rate of 10-15 percent. In addition to public education, public-private partnerships, and research, the strategy outlines three main action areas to address pollinator loss:
- Reduce bee colony loss during wintertime to less than 15 percent within 10 years
- Increase the population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies in the overwintering grounds in Mexico by 2020
- Using public-private partnerships, restore and enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators in the next 5 years.
Protecting honeybees won’t be cheap. According to the task force, the Department of Interior, EPA and USDA will need an additional $34 million above 2015 funding levels to implement the strategy. Currently, pollinator health programs across agencies receive $48.5 million in funding. Most of the new funding would go to the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture ($21.8 million), the Agricultural Research Service ($7 million), the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs ($1.5 million), and the U.S. Geological Survey ($1.56 million).
While the plan does call for additional investigation in the role that neonicotinoid pesticides (or neonics) may be playing in colony collapse, several groups have already called the administration’s response to the decline in pollinators inadequate. Neonics are a systemic pesticide, meaning that they are taken up by the roots of plants and find their way to the leaves, flowers and pollen. In the United States, 90 percent of corn seeds and 30 percent of soy seeds are pre-treated with neonics. Research supports neonics being a significant contributor to honeybee colony collapse disorder – when bees die off or leave colonies en masse. Neonics are already banned in Europe, and the EPA, which has put a moratorium on new use permits for them, will accelerate its review of the pesticide.
Some environmental groups say these steps are not enough to protect bees. They want to see the pre-treatment of seeds regulated as a pesticide action, and treat such uses of neonics as unnecessary, among other measures. According to Bryan McGannon, Deputy Director of Policy at the American Sustainable Business Council, “Our business network members are very concerned with the continued and unsustainable losses of bees and other essential pollinators and their impact on the bottom-line of our industries and economy. The Obama administration must listen to the business community and growing body of science by taking immediate action to address the threats pollinators face from pesticides to protect our economy, food system and all of us.”
Some agri-businesses and members of Congress think that it’s a mistake to only focus on the role of neonics in colony collapse. Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL), chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research, thinks the varroa mite may be playing a role, a parasite that kills honeybees. The two threats may very well be related: research suggests neonics weaken a honeybee’s ability to fend off varroa mites. Davis has remarked that there is still disagreement between USDA and EPA on the benefit of neonic-coated soy seeds to farmers.
Still, it’s remarkable that a President would choose the humble honeybee as part of his legacy, particularly when he faces a growing domestic and international agenda in his remaining months in office. According to the Washington Post, the President became actively interested in the topic in 2011, and requested a briefing from aides. He later pushed John Holdren, assistant to the President for science and technology, on the issue, stating, “What are we doing on bees? Are we doing enough?”
According to Dr. Holdren, the President sees bees as the ‘canary in the coalmine,’ stating in an interview, “If honeybee colonies are collapsing for a reason we don’t understand, what is that telling us about our overall impacts and understanding of the ecosystems on which we depend?” For now, wildflower seeds are being handed out to homeowners and the task force hopes to enhance bee habitat in other ways as well. But it remains to be seen if these efforts will prove enough to protect bees – the brokers of foods from apples to zucchini.
For more information see:
How the White House plans to help the humble bee maintain its buzz, The Washington Post
Announcing New Steps to Promote Pollinator Health, The White House