The Obama administration’s new National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators has some admirable goals. But the devil will be in the details of trying to protect honey bees and other pollinators from further declines in numbers.
The Strategy, as it is being called, is a result of nearly a year of deliberations by the Pollinator Health Task Force created by the president last summer. The task force was chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
The president cited numerous reports of declines in populations of honey bees, native bees, birds, bats and butterflies in the environment when he created the task force on June 14, 2014. Last year, beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of honey bee colonies, the highest annual loss in many years.
The new strategy has three overarching goals, according to a summary signed by Vilsack and McCarthy and released on May 19:
- Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years. “This goal is informed by the previously released Bee Informed Partnership surveys and the newly established quarterly and annual surveys by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service,” the summary said. “Based on the robust data anticipated from the NASS surveys of beekeepers, the task force will develop baseline data and additional goal metrics.”
- Increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies occupying an area of approximately 15 acres in the overwintering grounds in Mexico through domestic/international actions and public-private partnerships by 2020.
- Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years through federal actions and public-private partnerships.
The latter addresses an issue that has been increasingly cited by beekeepers and other interest groups alike – the gradual decline in habitat or vegetation that can provide nourishment to honey bees and other pollinators due to urban encroachment and more intensive farming practices.
In the past, many smaller, more diversified farms had fence rows, pastures and wood lots that provided habitat for bees, birds and butterflies. Economics has forced many growers to convert every available acre into intensively managed cropland.
“The Strategy also advances ambitious federal commitments to increase and improve habitat for pollinators, both directly through the large variety of facilities and acreages managed by the federal government and indirectly through the leadership role that federal agencies can play in interactions with states, localities, the private sector and citizens,” the summary said.
“These actions range from planting pollinator gardens and improving land management practices at federal facilities to advancing the availability and use of pollinator-friendly seed mixes in land management, restoration and rehabilitation actions nationwide.”
The Presidential Memorandum creating the task force also ordered its members to conduct research to “understand, prevent and recover from pollinator losses.” Accordingly, the task force has prepared a “Pollinator Research Action Plan.”
The plan appears aimed at obtaining better information on current pollinator population patterns and an assessment of the health of bees and how stressors are leading to species declines and colony collapse disorders.
One of the goals calls for identification of best practices for minimizing pollinator exposure to pesticides and new cost-effective ways to manage pests and diseases both for crops and for bees and other pollinators.
“Many environmental factors have the potential to impact pollinator populations,” the Pollinator Research Action Plan says. “Information is needed on individual stressors and how they interact, particularly with regard to the sublethal impacts of pesticides and mite parasites. Research must focus on developing miticides for honey bees that can safely and effectively manage colony infestations.
“Information is also needed on how these individual stressors interact in real world situations to cause declines in both honey bees and other pollinators.”
The National Pollinator Health Strategy paints with a broad brush, while a statement released by EPA on its role in the effort to restore honey bee health and increase Monarch butterfly populations is much more specific.
As part of the latter, EPA has already sent letters to registrants of neonicotinoid pesticides with outdoor uses informing them the agency will likely not be in a position to approve most applications of new uses of these chemicals until new bee data are submitted and pollinator risk assessments are complete.
Meanwhile, the agency says it will issue a new Proposal to Mitigate Bee Exposure to Acutely Toxic Pesticides for public comment this month The proposal will include new restrictions to better protect bees from pesticides, including additional restrictions on all highly toxic pesticides, in addition to neonicotinoids, to prohibit their use on crops under contracted pollinator services.
It is also moving up the final decision timing and providing specific milestones for the 2015 update to the neonicotinoid registration review schedule, and it is updating the registration review schedule for all pesticides, covering planned reviews through 2017.
CropLife America, the organization representing the nation’s crop protection chemical manufacturers, questioned the latter, pointing out the difficulty of rushing scientific research to accomplish some pre-conceived schedule.
“Early reports from knowledgeable sources about the White House report are saying that it will accelerate EPA’s timeline for further scientific evaluation of bee impacts by certain insecticides,” said Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America.
“We are skeptical of how sound science can be ‘sped up’ for this evaluation and look forward to a reasoned dialogue with EPA on that point. We’re also keen to see how the new report addresses the role of long-sought state management plans outlined by EPA in edicts to state regulators over the past year.”
Other groups like the American Seed Trade Association said they liked the administration’s “proactive approach” to providing more assistance to programs aimed at protecting bee health and increasing forages available to them.
“However, ASTA is concerned the strategy laid out by the Department of Interior does not fully take into consideration the expertise and capacity of the native seed industry to provide pollinator-friendly native seeds,” it said. “Collaboration between the Department of Interior, its agencies and seed suppliers should be initiated as soon as possible to find solutions to build and sustain pollinators on federal lands.”
Environmental activist groups were critical of the strategy, although they applauded its setting goals for increasing pollinator habitat, restoring monarch butterflies and reducing winter honey bee losses.
“The recommendations don’t go nearly far enough,” said Lori Ann Burd, director of the environmental health program at the Center for Biological Diversity. She claimed “countless studies have found that pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoid insecticides, are a leading cause of pollinator declines.”
For more information on the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Health%20Strategy%202015.pdf