Jan 20, 2019 | Updated: 08:39 AM EST

Plans from DC Seek to Help Disappearing Bee Species

May 20, 2015 03:09 PM EDT


The Obama administration is hoping to reverse the rapidly declining populations of honeybees and monarch butterflies in the US by providing them with better nourishment. The federal plan will preserve seven million acres of habitat for bees, monarch butterflies and other insects, making the federal land more bee-friendly. The move is intended to bolster the population of pollinators that are essential to America's food crops, support research, and investigate the widespread cutback of pesticide use as part of a wide-ranging strategy.

As we have reported elsewhere, last summer beekeepers lost 42 percent of honeybee colonies. The mystery behind this dangerous decline remains unsolved, but experts agree there is no quick fix. Diseases, habitat loss from farming, development, and urbanization, and use of neonicotinoids-a variety of pesticide-have all been linked to the decline.

Honeybees and other pollinators are absolutely essential to our food supply and to the ecosystem. The Obama administration estimates that the work of honeybees alone is worth $15 billion annually to the nation's agricultural crops.

The White House task force's long-anticipated strategy sets bringing annual bee losses down to 15 percent, after last year's startling 42 percent drop. The plan proposes funding for honeybee research in the amount of $82.5 million in the upcoming budget year, more than twice the current $34 million. Another core component of the strategy is the restoration of seven million acres of bee-friendly habitat. The plan calls for the planting of varieties of wildflowers in many different locations to ensure that bees have enough space for nesting and foraging as well as adequate nutrition.

"It's a big step in the right direction," says Professor Nigel Raine the University of Guelph, Canada, a pollinator conservation expert. "It's making sure they have sufficient flowers to feed on."

The strategy of simply planting flowers along highways and near federal housing may sound too simple to be a real answer to the problem, but several bee scientists disagree. Because agriculture and development have changed so much of the American landscape in such drastic ways, pollinators are starving to death.

"This is the first time I've seen addressed the issue that there's nothing for pollinators to eat," University of Illinois entomologist, May Berenbaum says. Berenbaum questioned President Obama about a national strategy for bees in November when she received her award. "I think it's brilliant."

The plan hinges upon education, public-private partnerships, and research. It also directs multiple agencies to participate in managing land to support pollinator habitats. Berenbaum likes the plan's broad approach which does not place all of the blame on one department, and shares responsibility between agencies. "We all got into this mess and we're going to have to work together to get out of it," she said.

University of Montana bee expert Jerry Bromenshenk said the plan is an appropriate acknowledgement of the crucial role land use plays in the life (and death) of bees. "From my perspective, it's a wake-up call," Bromenshenk says. "Pollinators need safe havens, with adequate quantities of high-quality resources for food and habitat, relatively free from toxic chemicals, and that includes pollutants as well as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is assessing the effects of pesticides on honeybees. The agency is also reducing the use of neonicotinoid compounds which have been correlated with colony declines. Meanwhile, the USDA will expand summer forage areas using the Conservation Reserve Program amongst other tools as directed by the plan. And while the Department of Interior will implement many of the listed changes on the vast areas of land it controls, the Department of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development will also be working to include bee-friendly landscaping in grant-making and on their properties.

Many scientists who study bees approve of the plan. It is intended to be an "all hands on deck" approach, according to White House science adviser John Holdren. "Pollinators are struggling," Holdren says.

"Here, we can do a lot for bees, and other pollinators," says Dennis van Englesdorp, the University of Maryland entomology professor who led the federal bee study citing the major loss from 2014. "This I think is something to get excited and hopeful about. There is really only one hope for bees and it's to make sure they spend a good part of the year in safe healthy environments. The apparent scarcity of these areas is what's worrying. This could change that."

A task force will advance research into causes of the declines, including exposure to a host of pathogens, including viruses and mites, poor nutrition due to decreased diversity in their forage, pesticide exposure, and beekeeper management practices. The aim is also to more accurately quantify those reported declines.

The American Honey Producers Association and the American Beekeepers Association released a joint statement saying they were "hopeful that the United States Congress will do its part in helping to ensure results rather than rhetoric by providing the resources needed to combat this most serious of threats to honey bee health, the beekeeping industry, and production agriculture."

Environmental groups criticize the strategy, saying that it does not going far enough, particularly with regard to pesticides.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urges the White House to take more drastic action. "To truly save bees and other pollinators, we must drastically cut down on today's pervasive use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides," Peter Lehner, executive director of the NRDC, said in a press release.

"They are not taking bold enough action; there's a recognition that there is a crisis," says Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. "Our bees can't wait for more reports and evaluations. We need to save them by banning neonicotinoids, and especially neonicotinoid seed treatments, right now," added Burd.

"Four million Americans have called on the Obama administration to listen to the clear science demanding that immediate action be taken to suspend systemic bee-killing pesticides, including seed treatments," Friends of the Earth food program director, Lisa Archer says. "Failure to address this growing crisis with a unified and meaningful federal plan will put these essential pollinators and our food supply in jeopardy. President Obama's National Pollinator Health Strategy misses the mark by not adequately addressing the pesticides as a key driver of unsustainable losses of bees and other pollinators essential to our food system."

Perhaps predictably based on the environmental action group response, pesticide makers have praised the plan.

CropLife America, which represents the makers of pesticides, approves of the strategy's "multi-pronged coordinated approach."

Becky Langer of Bayer Crop Science, a leading manufacturer of the pesticides, told NPR that neonic restrictions are unneeded. "Neonicotinoids-when used according to labeled directions-can be used safely with pollinators."

For the sake of the American food supply, the plan at least provides some hope.

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