Is There Hope for the Honeybees?

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Pollinating insects provide about one out of every three bites of food we eat. But such insects are in critical decline, due in part to climate change and pesticides.

A new bill, the Pollinator Recovery Act, introduced last week by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), seeks to further strengthen pollinators’ federal protection in Congress. Among other provisions, the bill would require the United States Department of Agriculture to conserve up to three million acres of habitat designated strictly for pollinators only.

Last year, beekeepers lost about 40 percent of their honeybee colonies,according to the USDA. Their pollen, which ensures more than 120 crops ourcherries, avocados, and broccoli stock our grocery stores, drives more than $15 billion in agricultural revenue per year. Some crops, like almond trees, are 100 percent reliant on honeybees to pollinate their blooms each spring.

“So much of the food we take for granted every day arrives on our plate thanks to a pollinator,” Merkley said in a statement. “It’s easy to forget about the critical role pollinators play in our food systems. But if we’re not careful, we will only realize their importance when it’s too late and our agricultural industry has been decimated by their disappearance.”

Bees’ mysterious colony collapse has been linked to a host of environmental stressors like maganese, a pollutant released by iron and steel factories, and poor pest-management practices employed by Big Agriculture and urban gardeners alike. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides likeneonicotinoids, and pyrethroids (which appear to make bees more dormant and far less social, according to research) are also decimating bee populations at a rapid rate.

Other highlights from the Pollinator Recovery Act of 2016:

  • Form a nationwide surveillance program to monitor native pollinators for pests, pathogens, and other health problems, and track their numbers around the country in cooperation with the USDA, the Department of the Interior, state government, and research groups across the country.
  • Develop outreach programs with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture aimed at helping farmers reduce their pesticide use, and create an incentives program to pay farmers who cut back on pesticides and instead use natural predators to reduce pests. Payments will be doled out to “pollinator priority areas” around the country — designated, high-value habitat conservation areas for honeybees and other pollinators around the country.
  • Require that at least 25 percent of all the seeds and plants used in National Forest System re-vegetation projects are native species and provide forage habitat for wild pollinators — like native grasses, wildflowers, buckwheat, and alfalfa.
  • Establish a $10 million nationwide pollinator protection research program to help study colony collapse disorder, and address the toll such losses could have on crop production.

Merkley’s bill protects other key pollinators too. Monarch butterflies — which pollinate wildflowers — have declined more than 90 percent over the last 20 years as deforestation has claimed Mexico’s forests, where they spend the winter before migrating to North America. And bats, which pollinate more than 300 species of fruit, including bananas, have been killed by the millions from white-nose syndrome, a mysterious fungal disease.

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