What’s Missing From Obama’s Plan to Save the Bees

The administration will dedicate millions of acres for honeybee and monarch butterfly habitat but does not propose curtailing pesticides linked to plunging populations of pollinators.

(Photos: Flickr)

May 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

President Barack Obama has issued a 58-page plan to rescue the nation’s honeybees, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators crucial to America’s food supply. All are dealing with population declines and habitat loss.

The strategy, released Tuesday by the White House, has been officiously dubbed the "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators."

Obama’s pollinator-related task force outlines how the government will reverse recent honeybee and monarch declines by making millions of acres of federal land more bee-friendly, funding more research around bee health, and investigating ways to minimize pollinators’ exposure to pesticides.

The strategy and the accompanying Pollinator Research Action Plan outline “needs and priority actions to better understand pollinator losses and improve pollinator health,” said White House science adviser John Holdren in a blog post.

Those actions include installing pollinator-friendly landscaping around all federal buildings, restoring millions of acres of federal and private lands—like the recent $3.2-million initiative to plant milkweed patches for vanishing monarchs around the country—and discontinuing the spraying of crops with toxic pesticides when honeybee hives are present on farms.

The plan follows this year’s dire honeybee losses: More than 40 percent of managed colonies died between April 2014 and April 2015—the second-highest loss recorded. An acceptable level of loss, according to hive managers, is around 18 percent.

Monarch butterflies aren’t faring much better. Populations have declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years, which has coincided with a massive increase in the use of an agricultural herbicide that has wiped out milkweed, monarch caterpillars’ sole food source.

While environmentalists hail the plan as a step in the right direction, some argue the strategy doesn’t go far enough to protect pollinators that add more than $15 billion in value to fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops.

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“While we wait for this plan to go into action, we’re doing nothing in the meantime to address the threats bees currently face from today’s pesticides,” said Larissa Walker, pollinator campaign director for the Center for Food Safety.

She said the strategy highlights the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to restrict the use of new pesticides and curtail the widespread use of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics, that scientists have linked to the mass bee die-off of recent years.

“The task force evades the question by calling for more research, as it does in many areas,” Peter Jenkins, attorney with Center for Food Safety, said in a statement. “Pollinators cannot wait for more research.”

Two studies released in April in the journal Nature show new cause for concern. The first study found that both honeybees and wild bumblebees were more attracted to neonic-laced pollen than to natural food sources. The second study found that wild bee populations can be greatly affected by neonics—with densities cut from 40 bees per 500 square meters to 20 for one bee species.

In Canada, meanwhile, the government has proposed curtailing the use of neonics in the fields in the province of Ontario 80 percent by 2017.

“Adding habitat and setting aside areas for bees and monarchs is great, but there needs to be just as much effort into making sure that habitat is free of pesticides that can threaten their survival,” said Walker.