What's in Obama's plan to reverse honey bee and butterfly decline

Insects such as the honey bee and monarch butterfly contribute as much as $15 billion to the US economy through pollination. Can the agriculture industry survive their decline?

Andy Duback/AP/File
A hive of honey bees is on display at the Vermont Beekeeping Supply booth at the 82nd annual Vermont Farm Show at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Jct., Vt. Since April 2014, beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies, the second highest loss rate in nine years, and then managed to recover a bit, according to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

President Barack Obama has announced a plan to increase the dwindling population of honey bees and monarch butterflies by making federal land more suitable to the unsung workers that support American agriculture.

The Obama administration has a multi-pronged approach: planting more diverse vegetation on millions of acres of federal land, allocating $82.5 million of federal funds for research, and pushing a reduction in the use of pesticides.

However, some scientists say that these measures aren't enough to save the bees, or the US farm economy.

The plan begins with the creation of a Pollinator Health Task Force, which is expected to include representatives from 14 different federal departments who will create a strategy to improve the quality of pollinator habitats.

Through these measures, the Obama administration hopes to combat Colony Collapse Disorder, an as-yet unexplained syndrome that causes entire colonies of bees to die, leaving its queen bee, honey, and immature bees behind. Bee populations are also weakened by malnutrition, which is caused by a lack of agricultural diversity on lands that grow only one crop, and by exposure to pesticides.

Meanwhile, monarch butterflies face a similar problem as the milkweed, their natural food source, has declined as a result of farming practices.

“Pollinators are struggling,” John P. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a White House blog post. “Last year, beekeepers reported losing about 40% of honey bee colonies, threatening the viability of their livelihoods and the essential pollination services their bees provide to agriculture.”

Holdren also estimates that, through pollination, bees provide $15 billion of service to the US economy. Honey bees and monarch butterflies are two of the most productive pollinating species, a vital service to agriculture. In 2013, agriculture and agriculture-related industries contributed $789 billion to the US gross domestic product (GDP), a 4.7-percent share.

Many in the environmental community appreciate that the president has taken up an issue many would dismiss as inconsequential.

"Here, we can do a lot for bees, and other pollinators," University of Maryland entomology professor Dennis van Englesdorp, who led the federal bee study that outlined the scale of last year's loss, told the Associated Press. "This I think is something to get excited and hopeful about. There is really only one hope for bees and it's to make sure they spend a good part of the year in safe healthy environments. The apparent scarcity of these areas is what's worrying. This could change that."

Others think the administration should be pushing harder on agricultural producers to grow diverse crops and discontinue pesticide use, rather than putting the onus on the federal government.

“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,” Simon Fraser University biology professor Mark Winston told the Washington Post.

Mr. Obama has begun a symbolic effort to save the bees in his own back yard, signing off on a beehive and a pollinator's’ garden on the White House’s South Lawn. And when May Berenbaum, the National Medal of Science winner thanked Obama for caring about bees, he shook her hand and said “I do care about bees — and we’re going to fix them!”

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