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New White House pollinator plan gives big buzz to science
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New White House pollinator plan gives big buzz to science

A new White House plan to promote the health of bees and other pollinators calls for boosting research into ongoing population declines—and potential solutions. The plan, released yesterday, also recommends numerous measures to address growing concerns about the threat that bees, birds, butterflies, and other pollinators face from multiple factors, including pathogens, pesticides, climate change, and habitat loss. By addressing scientific knowledge gaps, the research should make the plan’s suggested measures much more effective, the report says.

The call for more research is just one part of the much broader pollinator health strategy unveiled 19 May by a multiagency task force convened by President Barack Obama last year. The strategy—widely anticipated but issued 5 months later than the White House had originally planned—also outlines a series of steps and goals for agencies to pursue, such as tackling bee-killing pathogens and mites, reducing pesticide use and reviewing its safety to bees, restoring degraded pollinator habitats, and encouraging the planting of more flowering plants and other pollinator-friendly vegetation.

So far, scientists are giving the plan a thumbs-up. “I think it's phenomenal,” says May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “To my knowledge, [it is] the first national-scale effort to address pollinator declines.”

Scientists are also generally welcoming the research component, but they note that science alone isn’t the answer. “All the research (and research funding) in the world will not help pollinator populations if there are no financial incentives to plant pollinator habitat and there is continued overuse of pesticides,” Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail.

The pollinating services of birds, bats, bees, butterflies, and other organisms are crucial, not only to ecosystems but also to humans. Pollinators play a role in producing one-third of people’s food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The White House in recent years has sought to highlight the importance of pollinators, especially bees; for instance, the Obamas have kept a beehive in their garden and served as public cheerleaders for bees.

For about a decade, beekeepers have reported losing an unusually high number of their colonies each winter. Some of these beehive losses, especially early in that time period, seemed to stem from a mysterious syndrome known as colony collapse disorder. Scientists and USDA say that there’s no single cause of the bee colony losses and that a combination of factors is to blame. Meanwhile, monarch butterfly populations have drastically declined as well, likely because of a combination of factors such as the loss of the milkweed plants they feed on, climate change, and habitat degradation.

Last June, the White House interagency task force began drawing up a series of steps to turn the tide. In the resulting report, the task force says scientists and agencies still face major knowledge gaps that hinder efforts to address the pollinators’ plight. Agencies should better coordinate existing federal research efforts into pollinators, but some research will require new funding from Congress, the task force says; the scientific findings that emerge would feed into policy actions taken under the broader pollinator health initiative.

Research efforts should focus on five areas, the report says: the current health and population of pollinators, especially bees; the individual and combined roles of pesticides and other environmental factors in hurting pollinators; the best methods and places to restore pollinator habitats; the economic effects of pollinator-friendly practices by land managers, farmers, beekeepers, and others; and the standardization and curation of scientific findings.

More generally, the strategy sets a number of goals: cutting overwintering bee colony losses to 15% (from roughly 30% in recent years) by 2025, restoring nearly 3 million hectares of land for pollinators in 5 years, and boosting monarch populations in a key wintering area in Mexico to 225 million by 2020 (roughly four times as high as now). And it calls for action not just by policymakers themselves, but also by ordinary citizens and through public-private partnerships.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, says it’s always questionable whether Congress will approve requests for new research funding. But he praises the emphasis on getting citizens involved, such as by planting flowers and cutting the use of pesticides on lawns. “That’s a pretty exciting part of this that isn’t dependent on a lot of new monies,” he says.

Environmental and food activists and beekeepers are praising the White House for issuing the strategy, but they see a major shortcoming in that the plans don’t involving banning pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Lori Ann Burd, director of the environmental health program at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, notes that some research studies suggest a link between neonicotinoid use and pollinator declines. “For bees and pollinators to survive and thrive, President Obama needs to order an immediate ban on neonicotinoids,” Burd said in a 19 May statement.

A relatively new class of compounds, neonicotinoids not only can kill bees but also have “sublethal” effects on their behavior and foraging and come into contact with bees in different ways than older pesticides do, environmentalists worry. Whereas pesticides are traditionally sprayed onto plants, neonicotinoids are absorbed directly into plant tissues, including nectar and pollen. That means bees’ exposure to neonicotinoids can’t be controlled by varying when the chemical is applied.

Under the White House plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) probably won’t approve any new neonicotinoid uses for the time being. The agency also will speed up its ongoing review of existing neonicotinoids before deciding whether to restrict them. As part of the review, EPA has said it’s factoring in a new suite of bee-safety tests, amid longtime concerns that the old methods that originally cleared neonicotinoids as safe didn’t capture the unique ways bees and other creatures are exposed to them. The new methods also seek to better capture pesticides’ sublethal and chronic effects on bees and shed insight on how the substances affect whole hives instead of focusing on individual bees.

Jay Vroom, president of the pesticide industry group CropLife America in Washington, D.C., said in a 19 May statement that “we are skeptical of how sound science can be ‘sped up’ for this evaluation and look forward to a reasoned dialogue with EPA on that point.” And Republicans in Congress have criticized Democrats, environmentalists, and food activists for putting too much blame on pesticides. “The factor near the bottom of the scientific community’s list seems to be the factor highest on the list of activist groups,” said Representative Rodney Davis (R–IL), who chairs a House Agriculture Committee subpanel, at a 13 May hearing.

Berenbaum warns that a blanket ban on neonicotinoids may have drawbacks. A full ban “won't stop bees from starving to death during the next Midwest drought. Nor will a ban on neonicotinoids prevent old chemistries from being resurrected or new chemistries from being approved without appropriate testing,” Berenbaum says. The new suite of bee-safety tests is one of the pollinator plan’s “most transformative” aspects, writes Berenbaum, who served on a panel of scientists that peer reviewed EPA’s new testing methods.

“This 21st century approach, shaped by the actual biology of the nontarget organisms, is the best safeguard against inadequately informed approval of the next new class of pesticides (and that's something an outright ban on one class of pesticides can't do),” she adds in her e-mail.