Billions of dollars and a third of the nation’s food supply are at stake. So it’s only right that the Obama administration is taking up the plight of the honeybee, a linchpin of our food system.
The only thing wrong is that the plan doesn’t go far enough.
The report offers up one ingenious solution: Create new habitats for bees and butterflies by planting millions of acres of wildflowers along federal highways. The land, now mostly barren, would give pollinators new places to forage and multiply. It’s a good idea. But it may be the only good idea in the report, and that’s a bit of a buzzkill.
In 58 pages, the task force avoids pointing fingers at a clear suspect in the deaths of bees and butterflies: pesticides.
The report promises more research, and stops short of direct recommendations about curbing the use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that’s applied to crops.
Honeybees, scientists agree, are particularly affected by neonicotinoids because they impair the insects’ ability to forage for pollen and rebuild their colonies in winter. The European Union has placed a temporary ban on their use.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a softer approach, saying it will not approve new versions of neonicotinoids without more studies. The task force’s report reiterates this point.
Almonds, apples, broccoli and many other crops depend on bees. In California, honeybees pollinate more than 100 different crops, including nearly 900,000 acres of almond trees, the state’s most valuable crop. And yet, since the mid-2000s, the United States has lost about 30 percent – or 5.6 million – of its beehives.
The administration, according to the report, is aiming for a 15 percent reduction in the losses of honeybee colonies during the next decade, particularly in the winter months when bees are the most vulnerable. In addition, it wants to increase the eastern population of monarch butterflies to 225 million by 2020.
Those are ambitious goals – fitting for the crisis at hand. But to accomplish them, we may need to do more than plant flowers. At a minimum, we need to speed studies about the pesticides, and either clear them of the collapse, or make hard decisions about their continued use.