Bringing back the bees

— A hundred years ago, some of the best farmworkers were wild and free. Feral bees spread out across fields and woodlands, gathering nectar and pollinating crops.

Today, that work is generally done by bees raised by commercial beekeepers. And those beekeepers are struggling. Last year, they reported losses of up to 40 percent of their honey bee colonies. Monarch butterflies and other pollinators are also in trouble. As a result, the federal government decided to act.

A year ago, President Obama charged a task force with representatives of multiple agencies with creating a strategy to deal with the situation. The task force recently released its report: “A Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” Led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, the task force laid out a framework to accomplish three goals: reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels, increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect annual migration, and restore or enhance millions of acres for pollinators through combined public and private action.

In a nutshell, the strategy report states that the task is very complicated, adding that there are numerous causes for the deaths of pollinators. Bees have been hurt by a lack of habitat, lack of a diverse food supply, a parasite called the Varroa mite, disease, pesticides and lack of genetic diversity.

Fixing the problem will involve a variety of strategies, to be carried out by everyone from 4-H students to the Department of Transportation. The task force plans to work toward developing a “Partnership Action Plan” to help coordinate state, local, industry and citizen groups that have the interest and the resources to help.

The most immediate impact of the strategy will be an effort across several federal agencies to create 7 million acres of additional pollinator habitat. It will include a massive swath through the Midwest and other areas near interstate highways and power company rights-of-way where pollinator-friendly vegetation will be planted and maintained – sometimes by citizens.

“People of all ages and communities across the country can play a role in the strategy,” said John Holdren, a White House science advisor. “You can share some land with pollinators by planting a pollinator garden or setting aside some natural habitat. You can think carefully before applying any pesticides and always follow the label instructions. You can find out more about the pollinator species that live near you,” he said in a blog post announcing the strategy.

As for pesticides, the task force acknowledges that “mitigating the effects of pesticides on bees is a priority for the federal government, as both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture.”  The strategy does not recommend banning any pesticides, but instead focuses on keeping them away from the plants when pollinators are present.

According to the strategy, the EPA will take several actions in the next three to five years. Those include re-evaluating the neonicotinoid family of pesticides (including a moratorium on new uses of these chemicals), analyzing neonicotinoid seed treatments, and considering additional restrictions on a broad range of pesticides. The pesticide section also stated that EPA will propose that growers not be allowed to apply certain pesticides if the plants are blooming because that is when bees are feeding and pollinating.

A few days after the release of the strategy, the EPA announced it is proposing and accepting public comments on mandatory pesticide label restrictions to protect bees that are part of contracted pollinator services (and by default, any other bees that may be in the area).

The proposed rule states, “EPA proposes to prohibit the foliar application of acutely toxic products during bloom for sites with bees on-site under contract unless the application is made in accordance with a government-declared public health response.” It adds, “Current neonicotinoid product labels include a 48-hour notification exception to the bloom prohibition. However, as part of this mitigation proposal, the 48-hour notification exception for crops under contracted pollination services during bloom for all neonicotinoid product labels would be removed.”

EPA is asking growers, beekeepers and other interested parties what they think about the idea of not applying pesticides while crops are in bloom.

EPA also says it will encourage states and tribes to develop “Managed Pollinator Protection Plans” to reduce the likelihood of bees being present in areas where pesticides are being applied to their land.

EPA is seeking comments on both the proposed label restrictions and the development of pollinator protection plans.

Learn more about them and read the proposed rule here.  Instructions for submitting comments are also included.

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