On June 20, President Obama issued a memorandum to address the dramatic population loss of pollinators and the critical role they play in the nation's agriculture industry. Pollinators like honeybees, bats, butterflies and birds contribute $24 billion to the U.S. economy every year and are responsible for producing about 30 percent of all food crops.  Yet, commercial beekeepers have reported a 30 percent colony loss every winter since 2006, more than doubling the previously recorded rate of 10-15 percent.  The memo establishes the first-ever task force on pollinator health, which will be co-chaired by representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

The current population of honeybees, which are vital to the production of fruits, nuts and vegetables, is only half of what it was in 1945. Although disease, loss of habitat, and inadequate diet have all contributed to the  decline, a new report in the Environmental Science and Pollution Research journal concludes that the widespread use of pesticides is causing significant damage to the bee population.  A review of more than 800 papers published over 20 years has found that neonicotinoid pesticides are as harmful as DDT – the very compound these new synthetic pesticides were developed to replace.  Neonicotinoid pesticides are systemic, meaning they are absorbed by the plants’ vascular tissue to make every part of the plant poisonous to insects. Since the introduction of systemic pesticides in the early 1990's, beekeepers have been observing widespread population losses and instances of colony collapse disorder. With only 2.5 million colonies left in the country, a continuing population decline poses a serious threat to agriculture, our food supply and native ecosystems. The damage from neonicotinoids and other pesticides is not confined to bees, with scientists now reporting that these toxic pesticides are polluting water, soil, harming earthworms, butterflies and birds. 

The Pollinators Health Task Force will develop a research action plan that studies population stressors to prevent future losses. The plan will include recommendations to improve habitat on federal lands and facilities and a public education program to increase awareness and engagement in pollinator safety.  The government agencies on the task force, such as the Department of Transportation and the National Science Foundation, have a provision in the memo to protect pollinators under their jurisdictions. The memo proposes that public-private partnerships be created with farms, organizations and business, to build on federal habitat protection efforts.  The administration stated in a press release, "Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels."

This is not the first Federal action taken to attempt to salvage the declining pollinator population. In his FY2015 budget, President Obama proposed allocating $50 million to multiple offices within the USDA to strengthen pollinator populations in critical areas as well as doubling the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program that are dedicated to pollinator health.  Additionally, Representatives Hastings (D-FL) and Denham (R-CA) reintroduced the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment (Highways BEE) Act (H.R. 4790) in May.  The Highways BEE bill would redirect existing funds, authorities and programs to protecting pollinator habitats through practices such as reduced mowing and native plantings on highway rights-of-way. Integrated vegetation management practices are already being used in a number of states, which are reporting cost savings of 20 to 25 percent through reduced mowing alone.  Through common-sense measures such as integrated vegetation management and native planting, 17 million acres of natural pollinator habitat can be restored across the country. The bill is currently being reviewed by the House Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure.


For more information see: 

Widespread Impacts of Neonicotinoids, BBC

Presidential Memorandum -- Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, The Whitehouse

Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations, The Whitehouse

Do bees freak you out? Well, President Obama wants to keep them around, The Washington Post

We all Get Stung by Bee Colony Collapse, The Washington Post

Highway Bees Act House Bill Would Save Money and Help Pollinators, EESI


Author: Amanda Kastrinos