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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Obama just unveiled a big new plan to save the honeybees

A decade ago, beekeepers in the United States started noticing that their honeybees were dying at suspiciously high rates each winter. It was a disturbing trend, given that these bees are so crucial for pollinating many of our favorite fruits and vegetables.
Vicki DeLoach/Flickr

In the years since, honeybees kept dying at alarming rates, and experts realized we've got a potential crisis on our hands. It's reached the point that President Obama has now taken a personal interest in the matter.
On Tuesday, the White House released its first-ever national strategy to improve the health of honeybees and other pollinators. This plan aims to reduce losses for commercial honeybees over the next decade. The White House will also ask federal agencies to help restore 
7 million acres of pollinator-friendly habitat, so as to improve bee diets and make them more resilient. Separately, the White House will also set a goal to bolster the dwindling population of monarch butterflies. And it'll ask Congress for $82 million in the FY2016 budget to carry this out.
"It's heartening to see interest this high up," emails Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland who has been closely tracking the decline of honeybees over time. (As Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post tells it, Obama first learned of the bee losses from a 2011 New York Times story and was soon asking advisers, "What are we doing on bees?")
Yet some critics thought the White House wasn't going far enough to help the bees. Environmental groups say the new plan does little to restrict certain pesticides that may be playing a role in the bee decline. Experts also noted that the plan focuses mainly on honeybees and puts somewhat less emphasis on bumblebees and other important wild pollinators that are also in trouble.

How the White House plans to reduce honeybee losses

Normally, commercial beekeepers expect to lose at least some of their honeybee colonies each year, particularly as bees succumb to the cold winter months. An annual loss around 15 percent is deemed "acceptable."
Right now, losses are way, way above that. In 2014-'15, commercial beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their honeybee colonies:
Total Honeybee Colony Loss.
Experts typically blame a combination of factors for the honeybee losses. The parasiticVarroa destructor mite, accidentally introduced from Asia, has been attacking hives around the country. Honeybees often suffer from poor nutrition, as their usual diet of native flowers has been replaced by suburban lawns or mono-cropped farmland. On top of that, a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids may be messing with bee nervous systems and making them more susceptible to infections.
The losses are worrying, since honeybees pollinate some $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and almonds. So far, beekeepers have managed to adapt to honeybee losses by working furiously to rebuild their colonies in the spring and summer — at considerable cost. But if the losses keep mounting, the worry goes, this situation could become unsustainable.
So in its new plan, the White House has set a goal of bringing winter honeybee colony losses back down to an "acceptable" level of 15 percent within a decade. To do that, the plan calls for more funding for strategies to stave off the Varroa mite and other invasive pests, as well as research into improving bee nutrition and understanding the impacts of pesticides.
Crucially, the federal government will also push to restore some 7 million acres of wild habitat for bees and other pollinators over the next 5 years. That will partly be done by changes in management on federal lands. The government is also encouraging people to plant pollinator-friendly plants in their backyards. The hope is that if bees have healthier diets, they'll be more resilient against all the other stresses they're facing.
Outside experts lauded this aspect of the White House plan. "I think the emphasis on increasing pollinator-friendly habitat is great — we need a safe, nutritious place for bees to go," says vanEngelsdorp. "Increased investment in research to make sure policy is data-based is good. Having clear goals by which to measure success is also a good thing."

Does the plan go far enough on dealing with pesticides?

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Honey bees swarming in a plum tree in the Cotswolds, UK. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Not everyone's convinced the plan goes far enough, however. Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, was more cautious in his assessment: "This reminds me a little of the UK’s 2014 National Pollinator Strategy," he told me. "Documents such as this help to raise awareness of the importance of the issue, which is of course good, but I wonder whether they really make much difference on the ground."
In particular, Goulson pointed out that the White House plan didn't do much to restrict certain newer pesticides that may be playing a role in the bee decline.
Ever since the late 1990s, many farmers in the United States have been usingneonicotinoids — or "neonics" — an insecticide derived from nicotine that affects the nervous systems of insects. These pesticides are applied directly to seeds and taken up by the plant itself. Neonics are popular because they're considered more effective than older insecticides and less toxic to humans. Today, they're widely used on crops like corn, soybeans, and canola.
The problem is that honeybees can inadvertently get exposed to neonics when they're out foraging for food — though it's unclear how much they actually take up. In tests, scientists have amassed evidence that these insecticides can weaken bees' immune systems, make them more susceptible to parasites, and cause other problems.
As such, many experts suspect they may be contributing to the honeybee and even wild bee decline, at least in part. At the same time, we also know that neonics aren't the onlything killing the bees. After all, Australia has been using neonics widely for years, but its honeybee colonies remain healthy (possibly because the country is free of the Varroamite).
The question is what to do in the face of this ambiguous evidence. In 2013, the European Union decided to ban neonics for two years out of caution, to study whether it would help the bees. The US government, by contrast, has decided simply to review the matter (after all, many farmers find these pesticides valuable, so a ban wouldn't be cost-free). The latest White House plan calls for more research on the effects of pesticides.
To many, that's not enough. "More research is great — I am, after all, a researcher myself," Goulson told me by e-mail. "But we know an awful lot already. We need to take action, not just do more research. The pesticide section is a case in point — specific measures to reduce exposure of bees to pesticides are needed, not decades of more research."

The White House also wants to help monarch butterflies

In its plan, the White House also set goals for boosting populations of the monarch butterfly, which has seen a precipitous decline in recent years and could soon get declared an endangered species.
Monarch-population-figure-2014-monarchwatch__1_
The number of monarchs that make it down from the United States to Mexico to hibernate winter has been steadily declining over time. Last year, there were only about 50 million butterflies. One big problem? The rise of herbicide-intensive farming in the Midwest United States has been wiping out milkweed, the main food for monarch caterpillars.
The White House, for its part, has set a goal of boosting the winter population back up to 220 million butterflies by 2020. It's not clear how that will happen — there are only ideas and proposals. For example, the Department of Transportation and Fish & Wildlife Service could consider working with states to maintain a 1,500-mile "pollinator corridor" along I-35 between Minnesota and Texas — a key route during the monarch's summer migration. The idea would be to would restore milkweed and other butterfly-friendly vegetation and educate the public along this route. That's one possible approach.
Will any of this work? Lincoln Brower, a biologist at Sweet Briar College and expert on the monarch butterfly, emailed me some skeptical thoughts: "The number of proposed projects is very unrealistic," he said. "In the extensive bibliography I see very few references to the key monarch literature. Most disturbing is the fact that two chief pesticides, neonicotinoids and glyphosate [the herbicide thought to be killing milkweed], are not even mentioned in the entire long document."
Brower's bottom line on Obama's plan? "The proposal is impressive and comprehensive for bee pollinators but very short on the monarch butterfly in terms of the problems and potential solutions."
Note that, separately, the US Fish & Wildlife Service is still mulling whether monarch butterflies should be declared an endangered species, which could well trigger more radical changes down the road — like new guidance for farmers on dealing with milkweed.

Critics also noted the plan isn't focused enough on wild bees

Bumblebee on goldenrod in Montgomery County, Maryland. (Alice Crain/Flickr)
Goulson, meanwhile, pointed out another criticism: The White House strategy was primarily focused on honeybees — which, understandably, have received a lot of attention in recent years. But there are also some 4,000 species of wild bees in the United States, including a variety of bumblebees. By some estimates, these bees are just as important to crop pollination as honeybees are, possibly more.
While data on the health of these wild bees is harder to come by, we have evidence that the ranges and distribution of these bees have been shriveling over time (see below).  And some studies have found that wild bees are even more vulnerable to certain stresses — like pesticides — than honeybees are.
Some wild bee species have undergone major range contractions. Bombus affinis in North America (Map produced by the Xerces Society, list of data providers can be found at www.leifrichardson.org /bbna.html). (Goulson et al, 2015)
Some wild bee species have undergone major range contractions. Bombus affinis in North America (Map produced by the Xerces Society, list of data providers can be found at www.leifrichardson.org /bbna.html). (Goulson et al., 2015)
"To my mind, this [White House] document is far too focused on honeybees," Goulson told me. "They are just one of 4,000 US bees, and huge amounts of pollination are delivered by the other species. Yet when you read the research priorities, the large majority are focused exclusively on honeybees."

Presidential Memorandum -- Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators

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