Here’s How The White House Plans To Curb Staggering Honeybee Losses

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach

A bee works on collecting nectar from a fruit tree in West Bath, Maine on Monday, April 30, 2012.

The White House announced a national strategy to combat pollinator losses Tuesday, an effort that comes on the heels of a report showing more than 40 percent of managed honeybees were lost last year.

The White House strategy lays out a goal to reduce winter losses of managed honeybees to no more than 15 percent in the next 10 years. Winter losses of managed honeybees for the 2014-2015 season topped 23.1 percent, according to a survey released last week. Beekeepers say that the maximum level of losses they can experience and still remain economically viable is 18.7 percent. Part of the White House’s strategy to reduce bee losses will be ramping up research and surveying efforts on honeybees, in an attempt to determine what stressors are most dangerous to bees and what are the best ways to manage bees’ habitat.

Mexico Monarch Butterfly

CREDIT: AP Photo / Marco Ugarte

The strategy, which grew out of a pollinator task force created by executive order last year, doesn’t just tackle managed honeybees — bees that are kept by beekeepers to pollinate crops around the country. It also singles out monarch butterflies, another pollinator that has been facing serious declines over the last several years.

Over the last two decades, monarch populations have declined by 90 percent, a drop that has been precipitated in part by removal of milkweed — a key food source for monarch larvae — along with changing weather patterns, and deforestation. The White House wants to increase the eastern monarch butterfly population to 225 million butterflies by 2020, a goal it aims to accomplish through public-private partnerships and actions in both the U.S. and Mexico, where the butterflies spend the winter.

The strategy also spells out a goal to “restore or enhance” seven million acres of pollinator-friendly habitat over the next five years. That goal will help native pollinators, such as wild bees and butterflies, as well as managed honeybees. Last year, summer losses for managed honeybees exceeded winter losses for the first time, and Dennis VanEngelsdorp, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, told ThinkProgress that poor bee nutrition due to meadows being plowed under for crops might have contributed to the summer losses.

Increased habitat for both managed and wild bees is the part of the report that Sam Droege, a native bee expert and U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist, is most excited about — though he said he thought that, in general, the fact that there’s a White House strategy on pollinators at all is “actually pretty amazing.”

“Habitat is the big key here,” he told ThinkProgress. Humans are “neat and tidying” the world so much, Droege said, that some monoculture crops — though important for food production — “might as well be a small step away from pavement” as far as habitat quality goes.

Still, Droege said that finding ways to conserve native bee species — many of which we haven’t identified yet — will be tricky. It’s easy to find ways to boost the health of some insect populations – planting more milkweed for monarchs, for instance — but there are thousands of species of native bees, and they’re varied in their ecological niches.

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CREDIT: shutterstock

More research and enhanced habitat are big parts of the White House’s strategy to curb pollinator losses, but the report also singles out pesticide use as a possible contributor to recent bee losses. A particular class of pesticides — neonicotinoids — have been found by researchers to affect bees’ nervous systems, causing them to forget what food smells like or suffer from short- and long-term memory loss.

“Mitigating the effects of pesticides on bees is a priority for the Federal government, as both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture,” the White House strategy reads. “Through actions outlined in this strategy, the federal government seeks to create physical and temporal space between the use of pesticides and those areas and times when pollinators are present.”

The strategy notes that the Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the risks posed by neonics and plans on issuing its assessment of the pesticides at the end of 2015. The agency’s taken a few small steps already to reduce use of the pesticides: In April, the agency announced that it was unlikely to approve any new outdoor uses of neonics.

The White House strategy’s discussion of neonics wasn’t enough for some environmental groups, which want the federal government to suspend use of the pesticides altogether.

“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,” Friends of the Earth Food and Technology Program Director Lisa Archer said in a statement.

For Droege, it’s not that simple. It is becoming clearer from research that there are “clear negative signs” from neonics, and that like DDT, these negative impacts could accumulate over years. But there’s still more to be learned about neonics, he said.

“At this point I’m not sure that it would be beneficial to ban it,” he said, though he did say that there were “logical places to restrict” neonics, like personal use in yards.