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Obama Wants To Save The Bees

The White House has launched a national strategy to help beekeepers counter the huge losses they are suffering in recent years as hives mysteriously die off. The administration has laid out major actions it will take in the coming years to keep “pollinator” populations high.

President Obama’s “pollinators” strategy looks to boost the health of honey bees, monarch butterflies and other insects through “private and public action,” including “the construction of pollinator gardens at Federal buildings to the restoration of millions of acres of Federally managed lands and similar actions on private lands,” according to White House science czar John Holdren.

Holdren said the main focus for the Obama administration’s national bee strategy is to reduce “honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels.”

“These actions will be supported by coordination of existing Federal research efforts and accompanied by a request to Congress for additional resources to respond to the pollinator losses that are being experienced,” Holdren wrote in a White House blog post.

While the White House is focusing on a broader range of “pollinators,” the public debate has mostly focused on the massive annual losses suffered every year by beekeepers raising honey bees. Since 2006, beekeepers have reported above normal losses due to a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD).

According to the Department of Agriculture, beekeepers lost nearly 35 percent of their colonies in 2014. The year before that, beekeepers suffered an annual loss rate of 45 percent of their colonies. Though the USDA only has colony loss statistics going to back to 2006.

Environmentalists have blamed these die offs on pesticides, particularly on neonicotinoids, a relatively new type of insecticide. Recent research claims that neonicotinoids harm bees’ nervous systems by causing memory loss. Researchers say this class of pesticides is causing bees to die off.

The Obama administration has heard such claims, and has made pesticides a key part of the strategy to rebuild bee colony resilience. The White House’s strategy says “[m]itigating 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.”

“Through actions outlined in this strategy, the federal government seeks to create physical and temporal space between the use of pesticides and those areas and times when pollinators are present,” the strategy says.

Obama issued an executive order last year creating a Pollinator Health Task Force. About a month after that, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was phasing out neonicotinoid use in federal wildlife refuges. The USDA also announced a $3 million program to pay farmers to use “bee-friendly” pesticides.

But Obama’s good intentions could be misplaced. Experts and the media have heaped criticism on the same studies environmentalists use to link neonicotinoids.

Bloomberg View’s Lisa Beyer noted that the studies from Harvard’s School of Public Health “used dosages far in excess of anything bees would encounter in agricultural fields.”

Beyer added that “it should be noted that whatever results the researchers created in the lab, in trials in which bees have been placed in farm fields treated with neonicotinoids, the colonies have done fine.”

“[The Harvard study] just confuses the issues,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland entomologist, told Time. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going on.”

The total number of honey bee colonies has also remained relatively stable for the last 14 years. In 2000, there were 2.62 million colonies in the U.S., and by 2014 there were 2.74 million producing colonies in the country.

More importantly, the total number of colonies has remained stable (and even increased) since 2006, when CCD was first identified by researchers. Honey production has also remained stable since that time, despite CCD. Winter bee colony losses have also been on a downward trend since 2006, but summer losses have been increasing.

So what could be causing bees to mysteriously die off? Beyer says one reason could be federal biofuels policies which have boosted corn and soybean prices and “accelerated the conversion of open land to cropland, leaving bees little to eat outside of the few weeks when a crop blossoms.” Beyer also suggests the “Varroa mite,” which has become resistant to miticides, could be spreading disease among bees and killing off colonies.

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