The humble bee — nuisance, threat, and linchpin of the American food supply — has won over the leader of the free world. And now President Obama is intervening on the bee’s behalf as its habitat dwindles.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration will announce the first National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a bureaucratic title for a plan to save the bee, other small winged animals and their breeding grounds. The initiative may feel like the kind of niche interest a second-term president devotes his time to, but scientists say his attention to the busy workforce that sustains many American crops is critical. While bee colonies regularly die off during winter because of stressful conditions, their sharp decline has been called a potential ecological disaster by some environmentalists and academic experts; conservative Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) described it in an interview as “an essential thing [that] we need to pay attention to.”
The strategy, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, will seek to manage the way forests burned by wildfire are replanted, the way offices are landscaped and the way roadside habitats where bees feed are preserved.
It is also the culmination of a years-long fascination Obama has had with the bee and its worrisome fate.
“I have to say that it is mighty darn lovely having the White House acknowledge the indigenous, unpaid and invisible workforce that somehow has managed to sustain all terrestrial life without health-care subsidies, or a single COLA, for that past 250 million years,” said Sam Droege, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist and one of the country’s foremost experts on native bee identification.
Bees — along with birds, bats and butterflies — play a key function by pollinating commercial fruit and vegetable crops; alfalfa and clover that provide feed for cattle; and the nuts, seeds and fruits that sustain massive grizzly bears and delicate songbirds. Some estimates put the economic value of their activities at roughly $15 billion a year.
But over the past five years, winter losses of commercial honeybee colonies have averaged roughly 30 percent. A consortium of universities and research laboratories announced last week that beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies between April 2014 and 2015, an 8 percent spike from the previous year, and that the number of summer deaths exceeded winter deaths for the first time since the survey began in 2010.
A similar problem exists with the monarch butterfly, which undertakes an arduous annual migration from sites in the Northern United States and Southern Canada to Mexico. The butterflies have been hit hard by the decline in native milkweed that has come from shifts in farming practices, as well as by climate change and exposure to insecticides. During this past winter, the butterflies occupied just 10 percent of the habitat in Mexico that they did a couple of decades earlier.
John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, said in an interview that the president is concerned about the issue not just because of bees’ economic impact, but also because of the “canary in the coal mine” phenomenon. “If honeybee colonies are collapsing for a reason we don’t understand, what is that telling us about our overall impacts and understanding of the ecosystems on which we depend?”
Obama has signed off on the placement of a beehive and then a pollinators’ garden on the South Lawn. When National Medal of Science winner May Berenbaum, sporting a Fortunoff blue sapphire honeybee pin on her lapel, thanked him for caring about bees as she shook his hand on Nov. 20, he replied, “I do care about bees — and we’re going to fix them!”
Long before Berenbaum broached the subject, the issue made it to the Oval Office. Sam Kass, then the president’s senior policy adviser on nutrition and the first family’s personal chef, frequently discussed bees with Obama. After reading a New York Times article in early 2011 about honeybee colony collapse disorder — where many bees die and others abandon the hive — the president asked aides for a memo. Two years later, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack authored another memo, accompanied by one co-written by Holdren and Obama’s domestic policy director, Cecila Muñoz.
“What are we doing on bees?” Obama asked Holdren as they prepared to wrap up an Oval Office meeting in the summer of 2013. “Are we doing enough?”
That discussion led to the launch of the White House Pollinator Health Task Force, whose recommendations are being unveiled Tuesday. The federal government has undertaken two targeted initiatives in the past: a 2007 action plan on honeybee colony collapse disorder and 2008 North American recovery strategy for monarch butterflies. But this one, which has drawn on the work of 14 agencies as well as the private sector, is more ambitious.
It aims to reduce honeybee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within a decade, and increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly so that 225 million butterflies occupy roughly 15 acres of wintering grounds in Mexico by 2020. The government and private entities will also restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.
Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice have been pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to outlaw neonicotinoid pesticides, which are banned in Europe, on the grounds that they are toxic to bees. In March, the EPA issued a moratorium on approving any new use permits for these kinds of insecticides, and on Tuesday, it will announce it’s accelerating its review of their impact. The agency will issue its first assessment at the end of this year — two years earlier than scheduled — and will finalize regulatory action by the end of 2018, a year ahead of schedule.
The agency will also impose new restrictions on what pesticides farmers can use when commercial honeybees are pollinating their crops.
CropLife America chief executive Jay Vroom, whose group represents pesticide manufacturers and participated in the task force, said that while his members might disagree with the EPA at times, they’ve “continued to be science-based and balanced” at the agency.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research, said he’s “glad the administration is putting an emphasis on the pollinator issue,” even though he thinks the EPA is unduly focused on pesticides’ impact compared with the varroa mite, a deadly parasite.
Davis noted that the EPA recently concluded soybean producers received little benefit from seeds coated with neonicotinoids, while the Agriculture Department disagreed. “We need to know what the best avenue for success is,” he said.
Simon Fraser University biology professor Mark Winston, however, said the administration is not pushing big agricultural producers hard enough to grow diverse crops and dramatically cut the amount of toxic pesticides they put on crops.
“If you don’t change farming and you don’t change pesticide use, you’re not going to make substantial changes in the health of pollinators,” Winston said.
But others describe these efforts — especially on habitat — as significant. W. Atlee Burpee & Co. has donated more than 1 million seed packets that the White House, National Park Service and Agriculture Department are distributing to Americans to plant in their yards, and most have already gone out the door. George Ball, the company’s chief executive, explained they called it a butterfly and bee garden because “there are people who are afraid of bees, so we had to shade it a little bit to ensure it was widely distributed.”
”It’s not like wolves, it’s not like we’re saying we’re going to have to set aside a couple of counties in Maryland,” said Droege, who has devoted years to collecting and identifying native bee species at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.
And while Yoho said he might press for the next president to reverse the new policies if “you’re having politics dictate policies, versus scientific research,” USGS Associate Director for Ecosystems Mission Area Anne Kinsinger said she thinks that is unlikely.
“These are changes to our basic guidelines on how we do things,” she said. “They’re in the fabric of the organization.”