White House lays out ambitious plan to save bees

By Tiffany Stecker | 05/19/2015 01:21 PM EDT

The White House released its comprehensive strategy to stem the steep decline in pollinators today, the start of what’s likely to become a growing debate in the federal government and Congress.

The White House released its comprehensive strategy to stem the steep decline in pollinators today, the start of what’s likely to become a growing debate in the federal government and Congress.

The goals are ambitious: limit honeybee overwintering losses to 15 percent within 10 years; boost monarch butterfly numbers to 225 million in the insect’s winter habitat in Mexico, a roughly fourfold increase from the current population; and restore and enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years through federal actions and public-private partnerships.

To do this, federal agencies must boost research on environmental stressors to bees and butterflies; expand pollinator acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners not to farm on large tracts of land; provide seed mixes that offer plenty of blooms with good-quality pollen; and improve outreach, especially between beekeepers and farmers, according to the White House Task Force on Pollinator Health, which is headed by the Agriculture Department and U.S. EPA.


"The President has emphasized the need for an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to promoting pollinator health, including engagement of citizens and communities and the forging of public-private partnerships," John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a blog post.

Beekeepers, agriculture organizations, the pesticide industry and environmentalists have been waiting for the report for nearly a year, since President Obama released his memorandum directing federal resources toward research and other actions to stave off a pollinator decline (Greenwire, June 20, 2014).

Pollinators are struggling, Holdren said. A recent USDA report found beekeepers had lost more than 40 percent of their honeybee colonies last year. Despite a recent uptick, monarch butterfly populations have also suffered dramatic losses of around 90 percent (E&ENews PM, Jan. 27).

Scientists say the drop in pollinators is tied to a combination of the loss of forage, poor-quality pollen, diseases, and parasites like the Varroa mite and pesticide exposure.

The strategy also calls on Congress to approve the $82 million dedicated to pollinators in Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget, the bulk of which will go to USDA’s research arms and the agency that administers CRP. The request is $34 million over fiscal 2015 enacted levels.

"I would say that’s a down payment," Tom van Arsdall, a spokesman for the Pollinator Partnership, said on the $82 million.

About $20 billion in crops depend on pollinators for production. Beekeepers in particular have been struggling to maintain viable colonies in the last decade, Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association, said in a statement.

"As an industry we have managed pests, pathogens and other bee health challenges successfully for decades, including the varroa mite. But significant habitat loss and increasing pesticide pressures are combining with those stressors to make for an all-too-formidable opponent, even for the mighty and long resilient honey bee," Cox said.

The report fell short of addressing environmental groups’ calls for restricting neonicotinoids, pesticides that absorb into a plant and can present themselves in pollen. A total of 128 groups signed a letter in March asking EPA to tighten regulations on seed treatments for neonicotinoids and speed up the timeline for reviewing the chemicals.

"The agency outlined it may consider restrictions on a broad range of foliar use products, but did not outline restrictions for pesticide coated seeds — one of the largest uses of bee-harming pesticides," Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said in an email. The report also doesn’t address pesticide impacts on native bees, she added.

The task force report repeated EPA’s position that it would review the neonicotinoids imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin and dinotefuran between now and 2017. The agency said it will propose a ban on spraying pesticides that kill bees on contact during the bloom period. EPA is also continuing to revise its study of neonicotinoid benefits on soybeans and complete similar assessments for other crops. The soybean assessment released last October, which found that neonicotinoid seed treatments offer little to no benefit to soybean producers, was criticized by the pesticide industry and was a central discussion point in a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing (E&E Daily, May 14).

EPA is also considering using state pollinator protection plans, which are designed to improve communication between beekeepers and farmers on the use of pesticides, as a mitigation strategy as it relates to legally binding pesticide label instructions.

These plans are supported by the pesticide industry and are met with skepticism from beekeepers.

"We’ve seen some great successes from the states that have already done this as a way to really encourage local stakeholder involvement and conversation," said Jeff Donald, a spokesman with Bayer CropScience. Bayer develops treatments for the Varroa mite, as well as neonicotinoids.

But beekeepers still question the overall effectiveness of the plans, Cox said.

"We very much have concerns on the reliance of state pollination protection plans," he added.

Additional reports on forage and pollinator nutrition, the effects of the Varroa mite, and crop production are expected to be released this week.