NSAC's Blog

White House Pollinator Strategy Released

May 22, 2015

The importance of pollinators in food security and agriculture across the country has been a topic of national interest for the last few years. We can thank pollinators for every third bite of food we take, and our nation’s food supply is largely dependent on the health of pollinator insects, birds, bats, and other animals.

Photo credit: USDA

Photo credit: USDA

In recent years, however, a combination of stressors including habitat loss, pesticides, diseases, and parasites have led to a substantial decline in the honey bee and other pollinator populations. According to a recent USDA report, beekeepers reported managed honeybee losses of more than 40 percent between April 2014 and April 2015, with monarch butterflies suffering enormous losses at around 90 percent.

On Tuesday, May 19, the White House Pollinator Health Task Force released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.  The Task Force, headed by the EPA and USDA, was created over a year ago by President Obama in his Presidential Memorandum.

The newly released National Pollinator Strategy works to address the issues of pollinator health, specifically targeting honey bees, monarch butterflies, and other important pollinators through a Pollinator Research Education Plan, public education, and public-private partnerships.  The accompanying science-based document, the Pollinator Research Action Plan, addresses many aspects of federally-supported pollinator health research.

The strategy report released Tuesday details the history of pollinator decline and lays out the goals for action by Federal departments and agencies in collaboration with public and private entities. The three main goals of the national strategy are to:

1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically viable levels; or no more than 15% over 10 years.

2. Increase the monarch butterfly population to 225 million butterflies in the winter habitat of Mexico, which is a four-fold increase from the 57 million butterflies recorded there in 2015.

3.  Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years through federal actions and public-private partnerships.

Examples of activities that the strategy report calls for include: increasing pollinator habitat through federal facilities and public rights-of-way landscaping; funding greater areas of pollinator habitat on USDA conservation land; and making pollinator-friendly seed mixes available to public and private groups.

Existing Farm Pollination Habitat Incentive Programs

Previous efforts have been made by the USDA to address the declining honeybee populations through farm bill conservation programs.

In June of last year, the USDA announced the availability of $8 million in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for mid-contract management incentives for Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin farmers and ranchers who establish new habitats for declining honey bee populations on their existing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. These five states are home for more than half of the commercially managed honey bees during the summer and offer a large area of potential habitat.

In 2012, USDA reserved 100,000 acres of CRP land for pollinator habitat, and, to date, about 30 percent of those acres have been enrolled in the program, with a majority of enrolled acres coming into CRP during the past year. Three-quarters of CRP pollinator habitat enrollments are in Iowa and Illinois.

Outside of the special CRP pollinator habitat initiative, USDA estimates an additional 94,000 acres of CRP land are pollinator habitat acres, with Texas and Colorado the leading states in that category. The new strategy will explore ways to increase those CRP pollinator acres.

For land that was previously in the CRP but is returning to agricultural production, or for any existing working farms that wish to engage in advanced conservation systems, the Conservation Stewardship Program provides long-term stewardship payment for advanced conservation systems that can include a pollinator habitat enhancement.

To date, nearly 3,000 CSP contract holders have selected enhancements that establish pollinator habitat in non-cropped areas on their lands. Through these enhancements, participants seeded over 11,000 acres of nectar and pollen producing plants in field borders, vegetative barriers, buffer strips, and waterways, providing increased diversity for pollinator habitat. Additional CSP enhancements beyond the ones targeted to habitat also continue to support producers in reducing pesticide application and providing a critical food supply for pollinators and beneficial insects. 

Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), USDA provided $3 million in FY 2014 and an additional $4 million in FY 2015 for technical and financial assistance for interested farmers and ranchers to improve bee health through working lands. This funding is available for conservation practices that increase habitat area and safe food sources for honey bees.

NRCS updates these conservation practice standards on a cyclical basis, and also updates CSP enhancements periodically. The pollinator health strategy states that NRCS has taken steps to include criteria for pollinator habitat in all applicable practice standards; and that by the end of the calendar year, the agency will further revise relevant standards and enhancements to include milkweed, which is the primary food source for the monarch butterfly.

Between 2010 and 2014, NSAC worked with NRCS to make improvements to many of these practices and enhancements as part of a multi-year Conservation Innovation Grant project. NRCS also worked closely with NSAC member organization, Xerces Society, to develop new and update existing technical materials so that NRCS staff and conservation professionals can more effectively help producers enhance pollinator forage.

Protecting Pollinators from Pesticides

The overuse and potential misuse of pesticides in agricultural production poses a real threat to many important pollinators, especially honey bees and monarch butterflies. In order to mitigate harmful effects on pollinators, the new Pollinator Health Strategy report calls on the EPA to take action on certain pesticides without limiting the use of pesticides in controlling agricultural pests. The following actions have been proposed by the Task Force and will be implemented over the next 3-5 years:

  1. Issue new toxicity study guidelines to more effectively protect adult and larval honey bees.
  2. Reevaluate the neonicotinoid family of pesticides and assess the risks and benefits of each neonicotinoid seed treatments for use in agricultural pest control.
  3. Restrict the use of pesticides that are acutely toxic to bees using advisory hazard statements and enforceable language in the label’s directions.
  4. Work with states and tribes to develop pollinator protection plans that will improve communication between growers and beekeepers.
  5. Reduce emissions of pesticide residues during the planting process through best management practices, developing more effective seed coatings, and reducing dust generation during planting.
  6. Mitigate pesticide impacts on monarch butterflies through conservation of milkweed plants with regulatory decisions on pesticide application and voluntary programs to restore habitat.

Many environmental organizations do not believe that these measures adequately address the hazards pesticides pose to honeybees and other important pollinators. In March of this year, 125 farm and environmental groups signed a letter urging President Obama to take strong action against the neonicotinoid class of pesticides. Neonicotinoids are especially dangerous to honeybees and native pollinators because they are systemic and persistent in the plant, soil, and surrounding waterways. The letter called for swift action against neonicotinoid use through expedited review of the registration process, closing loopholes in the pesticide review process, and ensuring EPA compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

The task force report did outline reevaluation of the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, but failed to outline restrictions on treated seeds, one of the largest uses of neonicotinoids.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

3 responses to “White House Pollinator Strategy Released”

  1. Ed says:

    As agriculture land is developed for urban use, seems natural that city parks, backyards, school grounds, church property and other land property owners should be educated and encouraged toward the benefits of pollinator habitats to rebuilding populations of endangered species. Food production, enjoyment of insects and recreational activities are part of the ecosystems.

  2. Paul Willis says:

    Are there funds for the collection of milkweed seed and for enhancing WRP?

  3. Sarah Hackney says:

    Hi Paul – thanks for your question! We’ve been told that they plan to integrate milkweed into the conservation practice standards by the end of this calendar year; we also hope to have more details on WRP enhancements by week’s end. If you can send a note to info@sustainableagriculture.net attn: Sarah, we’ll be sure to follow up when we get a fuller answer to your question.