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President creates task force to save the bees

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President Obama has created a new task force to try to save America's pollinators, including bees, birds, butterflies and bats.

Pollinators such as honey bees are vital in pollinating crops, and they are now disappearing at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. Honey bees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, such as almonds, apples, lemons, broccoli, avocados and carrots.

In a memo, Obama said:

Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.

Pollinator losses have been severe. The number of migrating Monarch butterflies sank to the lowest recorded population level in 2013-14, and there is an imminent risk of failed migration. The continued loss of commercial honey bee colonies poses a threat to the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States, which could have profound implications for agriculture and food. Severe yearly declines create concern that bee colony losses could reach a point from which the commercial pollination industry would not be able to adequately recover. The loss of native bees, which also play a key role in pollination of crops, is much less studied, but many native bee species are believed to be in decline. Scientists believe that bee losses are likely caused by a combination of stressors, including poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens, lack of genetic diversity, and exposure to pesticides.

Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels. These steps should include the development of new public-private partnerships and increased citizen engagement.

The president's action plan includes many directives for the new task force, including:

  • Develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy that includes explicit goals, milestones, and metrics to measure progress within the first 180 days.
  • Compile studies of the health of managed honey bees and native bees related to species declines and colony collapse disorder, including studies examining the effects of exposure to pesticides, poor nutrition, parasites and other pests, toxins, loss of habitat and reduced natural forage, pathogens, and unsustainable management practices.
  • Develop a public educational plan.
  • Develop public-private partnerships to increase the quality and amount of habitat for pollinators.
  • Evaluate permit and management practices on power line, pipeline, utility, and other rights-of-way and easements, and make changes to enhance pollinator habitat on Federal lands.
  • Ensure that all future landscaping projects at Federal facilities shall use plants beneficial to pollinators, and revise guidance documents for present landscaping within 90 days to recommend practices that create high quality habitats for pollinators on federal properties.
  • Establish a reserve of native seed mixes, including pollinator-friendly plants, for use on post-fire rehabilitation projects and other restoration activities.
  • Assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on bee and other pollinator health and take action, as appropriate, to protect pollinators.
  • Take immediate measures to support pollinators during the 2014 growing season and thereafter.

The plan includes directives to many other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation (which is instructed to increase pollinator habitats along roadways and pipelines, for instance) and the Department of Defense (which is instructed to use native landscaping and minimize the use of harmful pesticides on military installments), among others.

The task force shows that even the federal government realizes how dire the agricultural situation will be if current trends continue.

Current estimates show losses of managed honey bee colonies at 23 percent over the winter of 2013-14. Honey bee pollination is valued at $15 billion for U.S. agriculture per year, and other pollinators account for another $9 billion. Honey bees, birds, bats and other pollinators play a key role in the production of roughly 35 percent of American crops.

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