White House Gets Behind the Bees

Pollinators including bees just gained an important ally in the fight to regain their numbers, with the White House memorandum, “New Steps to Protect Pollinators, Critical Contributors to Our Nation’s Economy”. In his memorandum, President Obama directed the EPA and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to co-chair a new Pollinator Health Task Force which would identify ways to protect and restore pollinators, including honey bees, native bees (there are over 400 species in the US), birds, bats, and butterflies.

Pesticides, and particularly the neonicotinoids, or neonics, have been implicated in bee die-offs. They are the most widely used insecticides in the world (not including herbicides, like Roundup). Neonics act systemically, meaning they seep into the entire treated plant, including pollen and nectar that bees bring back to the hive to feed the colony, including the babies. Scientific studies of honeybees and bumble bees indicate that colonies exposed in small but repeat or extended doses to neonic pesticides have significant behavioral and functional impairments such as impaired learning, food collection, navigation, immune function, reduced egg-laying and reduced queen production. Any one of these effects is expected to hinder the ability of the colony to maintain its health and survive winter.

The White House is right to step in, because the situation for pollinators is dire. The memorandum states that, “The number of managed U.S. honey bee colonies dropped from 6 million colonies in 1947, to 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and just 2.5 million today. And last winter, the Monarch butterfly migration across North America was smaller than all previous migrations on record, and there is a risk that this iconic migration could end.” These pollinators contribute over $24 billion in pollination of our crops, wildflowers, forests, and gardens – including one-third of our food (see White House fact sheet for details). The President’s 2015 Budget allocated about $50 million for research, to increase pollinator habitat, and increase funding to survey the impacts of pollinator losses.

The White House fact sheet listed a combination of potential causes of pollinator die-offs: “loss of natural forage and inadequate diets, mite infestations and diseases, loss of genetic diversity, and exposure to certain pesticides” and viruses.

Reducing pesticide use is one of the things that we can do something about now. In addition to agriculture pesticide uses, the overuse of pesticides by homeowners for lawns, gardens, schools, parks, golf courses and public land, contributes to pesticide over-use and runoff into waterways.

The new Pollinator Health Task Force is directed to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy over the next six months, in which federal agencies partner with state, tribal, and local governments, farmers and ranchers, corporations and small businesses, and non-governmental organizations like NRDC to identify ways to expand pollinator habitat and protect them from health threats. The removal of unnecessary use of bee-toxic pesticides would greatly benefit pollinators. The European Union has already implemented a two year moratorium on the use bee-harmful uses of neonic pesticides. If the US is serious about saving its pollinators, it should do the same. 

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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