What can we do to save the bees?
The federal government hopes to reverse America's declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations. It wants to make more federal land bee-friendly. It wants to spend more money on research. And consider the use of less pesticides.
Bees are crucial. They pollinate many crops. Scientists say bees have been hurt by a combination of factors. The factors include declining nutrition, mites, disease and pesticides. The federal plan is an "all hands on deck" strategy. It calls on everyone to do what they can to save bees. The insects provide more than $15 billion in value to the U.S. economy. That is according to White House science adviser John Holdren.
"Pollinators are struggling," Holdren said in a blog post. He cited a new federal survey. It found beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their colonies. That was just in the last year. They later recovered by dividing surviving hives. He also said the number of monarch butterflies that spend the winter in Mexico's forests is down by 90 percent or more. That is over the past two decades. The U.S. government is working with Mexico. The countries want to expand monarch habitats in the southern part of Mexico.
The plan calls for restoring seven million acres of bee habitat. It would happen over the next five years. Numerous federal agencies must be involved. They will have to find ways to grow plants on federal lands that are more varied and better for bees to eat. Scientists have worried that large land tracts that grow only one crop have hurt bee nutrition.
The plan is not just for the Department of Interior. It has vast areas of land under its control. Agencies such as Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation will be included. They will have to create bee-friendly landscaping on their properties and in grant-making.
That part of the bee plan got praise from scientists who study bees.
"Here, we can do a lot for bees. And other pollinators," said University of Maryland entomology professor Dennis vanEnglesdorp. He led the federal bee study that found last year's large loss. "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."
Jerry Bromenshenk is a bee expert at the University of Montana. He said the effort shows the federal government finally recognizes that land use is key with bees.
"It's a wake-up call," Bromenshenk wrote in an email. "Pollinators need safe havens" that include adequate quantities of high-quality resources for food and habitat. They must be relatively free from toxic chemicals, he wrote. "And that includes pollutants as well as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals."
The administration proposes spending $82.5 million on honeybee research. The money would be spent in the upcoming budget year. That is up $34 million from now.
The Environmental Protection Agency will step up studies into the safety of widely used insecticides that affect the central nervous system. They are called neonicotinoid pesticides. Those have been temporarily banned in Europe. It will not approve new types of uses of the pesticides until more study is done the report said. Even then they might not be used.
"They are not taking bold enough action. There's a recognition that there is a crisis," said Lori Ann Burd. She is environmental health director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. She said the bees cannot wait. She compared more studies on neonicotinoids to going to a second and third mechanic when you've been told the brakes are shot.
The report talks of a fine line. It is said to be between the need for pesticides to help agriculture and the harm they can do to bees and other pollinators.
Lessening "the effects of pesticides on bees is a priority for the federal government," the report said. Both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture," it said.
Critical thinking challenge: How could federal departments such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation have an impact on bees?