The Pollinator Predicament: What’s All the Buzz About?

What PMPs Need to Know About Bee Decline and the White House Pollinator Strategy

Pollinator health has remained a hot topic across the pest management industry for nearly a decade. It all started back in 2006, when beekeepers across the nation started reporting higher-than-usual colony losses. These elevated losses have been defined as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

“CCD refers to the sudden loss of a honey bee colony’s adult population leading to death of the colony,” explains Richard D. Fell, Professor Emeritus with Virginia Tech’s Department of Entomology. “We have no known cause for CCD, and it is best referred to as a set of symptoms used to describe this type of loss. Bee decline refers to much bigger problem related to a decline in not only honey bee populations but also other bee species. We have over 3500 bee species in North America, and there is evidence that some of these other bee species have declined in numbers.”

According to the Bee Informed Partnership, which monitors bee colony losses across the nation, the average total loss was 29.6% between 2006 and 2014. Preliminary results reveal a total of 23.1% of the colonies managed in the Unites States were lost over the 2014/2015 winter.

“Colony losses are not new, but what is new is the sustained high losses that we have seen on a yearly basis, starting about the turn of the century,” Fell says. “In Virginia we have been keeping record of annual losses since 2001, and they have averaged about 30%. We may have had high losses occasionally in the past, but not this sort of high loss year after year.”

Keep reading to learn more about bee decline and how the recently released White House pollinator protection plan could impact the pest management industry.

Feeling the Sting from Bee Decline
Because pollinators play a vital role in the nation’s food supply chain, the U.S. government is not taking bee losses lightly. In fact, honey bees contribute billions of dollars in added revenue to our nation’s agriculture industry each year. However, the impact of bee losses expands far beyond the economic impact on beekeepers and reduced honey production. Because honey bees also play a key role in the pollination of many agricultural crops, hive losses are also negatively affecting U.S. growers.

“Current estimates indicate that honey bees contribute over $15 billion in pollination value to American agriculture each year,” Fell explains. “Many of the fruits and vegetables we consume require bee pollinators to set fruit.”

The Blame Game
The majority of honey bee colony losses take place during the winter when stress on colonies is the greatest. While there are a number of factors contributing to bee decline, Fell says scientists have not singled out a primary cause. “However, we do know that a number of factors affect colony health,” he points out. “Varroa mites are a major problem but certainly not the only factor contributing to colony loss. Other factors include pathogens (viruses, fungi, bacteria), queen failure problems, nutrition and inadequate foraging sites, management, environmental factors and pesticides. Our current thinking is that several factors interact to cause decline in colony health, leading to colony loss.”

Yet many people still place the full blame on pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoid insecticides. This group of insecticides is used extensively both in agriculture and structural pest control. However, Fell believes there is simply not enough evidence to prove these pesticides are the primary cause for bee loss.

“In my opinion, the issue of neonicotinoids and honey bees has been overplayed,” he says. “We simply do not have the data showing that neonics are a major cause of honey bee losses. There is no question that they are toxic to bees and have caused some bee kills, however, there is no good evidence that they are a major factor in honey bee colony ‘decline.’” He points to a recent publication from Australia on neonicotinoids and the health of honey bees, which states that these chemicals are not a significant issue to honey bee decline.

“If neonics were such a problem, why don’t we see high losses in Australia?” he poses. “Also if we look at the data from pesticide residue analyses of hives, neonics have only been found at very low levels in less than 3% of the hives. Hardly numbers that would explain the high losses we see across the U.S.” While Fell says it is possible that neonics could be a contributing factor, he says other pesticides are likely having a greater impact—particularly miticides, which have been used by beekeepers to control varroa mites. “We tend to find these in almost every hive examined for pesticide residues,” he adds.

Despite the lack of evidence, the European commission voted in December 2013 to enforce a two-year continent-wide ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. Since the ban, farmers have experienced widespread infestations, leading to an estimated 15 percent drop in this year’s European harvest of rapeseed—the region’s primary source of vegetable oil used to make food ingredients and biodiesel.

Understanding the White House Pollinator Plan
In recent years, the NPMA has become deeply involved in the pollinator issue. The association’s staff and board of directors have worked tirelessly to educate lawmakers and regulators and defend the tools used by structural pest management professionals. After many months of anticipation, in May 2015 the White House Pollinator Task Force finally released their 58-page plan entitled “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”

“The plan is a very well thought out and responsible approach to positively deal with a complex issue,” remarks Steven E. Dwinell, Assistant Director with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Agricultural Environmental Services. “The emphasis on improvement of habitat and bee forage is correct, and the best option for improving honeybee health and native pollinator populations. The approach is exactly what the state agencies have been advocating as a way to deal with this issue.”

Overall, there were no major surprises in the White House plan. In fact, the EPA highlighted the importance of pesticides for the protection of food supplies and human health. The plan also underscored the importance of balancing these benefits with risks by separating beneficial pollinators and pesticides in time and space.

Here are the five most important factors pest management professionals need to know about the White House plan:

1. The strategy focuses on pollinator research.

The plan, which is being led by the USDA and EPA, focuses primarily on increasing pollinator health research and improving and expanding pollinator habitats. The strategy also includes plans for expanding education and outreach as well as opportunities for public-private partnerships.

2. The EPA will propose to prohibit foliar application during contracted pollinator services by December 2015.

According to the strategy, the EPA will propose to prohibit foliar applications of acutely toxic products during bloom when they are used at sites where bee colonies are present and under contract for pollinator services. For sites that do not have managed bees on premises and under contract, EPA says Managed Pollinator Protection Plans developed by individual states will effectively protect managed pollinators.

3. The strategy outlines three major objectives.

The overarching objectives or benchmarks of the strategy are as follows:
• Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15% within ten years
• Increase Eastern population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies
• Restore and enhance seven million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years through federal, state and public-private partnerships

4. The EPA will take a comprehensive approach to assessing pesticide risk.

The EPA will reevaluate the neonicotinoid family of pesticides in 2015-2017, according to a schedule included in the plan. The assessment approach will include new pesticide exposure and effect study protocols as well as additional chronic and acute toxicity screening. Preliminary risk assessments for 58 active ingredients will be made available for comment in 2015.

5. The EPA will work with states to issue pollinator protection plans.

Each state will develop customized mitigation plans, focusing on communication between beekeepers and applicators to reduce the likelihood of exposure. A number of states already have pollinator protection plans in place and many others are in the process of creating plans. This is why it is important for structural pest management professionals to stay involved during their state’s plan development process.

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