White House unveils plan to save the humble bee

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2014, file photo, a hive of honeybees appears on display at the Vermont Beekeeping Supply booth at the annual Vermont Farm Show at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction, Vt. The federal government hopes to reverse America's declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations by making more federal land bee-friendly, spending more money on research and considering the use of less pesticides. (AP Photo/Andy Duback, File)

By Jean-Louis Santini ,AFP

WASHINGTON — The White House unveiled a plan to reverse an alarming decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators that play a critical role in agriculture and the environment. Honeybee pollination alone adds US$15 billion in value to U.S. crops each year, wrote John Holdren, one of President Barack Obama’s main science advisors. Bees and other pollinators are responsible for pollinating more than a third of the U.S. food supply, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a conservation group. But pollinators are struggling for a variety of reasons, and over the past 12 months beekeepers lost 42 percent of their honeybee colonies mostly in winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated last week. That loss marked the second worst year on record for bee mortality in the United States, according to the USDA. The worst was the 2012-13 season, with the loss of 45 percent of colonies. This mysterious phenomenon has been observed since 2006, mainly in North America but also in Europe, and is known as ��colony collapse disorder�� �X the more or less sudden death of millions of adult insects in beehives. Scientists point to a series of factors: sickness, parasites, dwindling food sources and harmful pesticides. The new U.S. plan also seeks to rebuild populations of Monarch butterflies, other pollinators that are also in sharp decline. Over the past two decades, the number of Monarchs migrating south, mainly to Mexico, in winter to escape the cold has dropped by 90 percent. To address the problem, the White House aims to limit bee mortality in winter to a maximum of 15 percent over 10 years. It also aims to restore 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares) of habitat for these insects over the next five years through federal intervention and partnerships between the public and private sectors.

Helping the Butterflies As for the Monarchs, the plan is designed to boost their population over the next five years in a 15-acre span of forest in Mexico, in collaboration with that government.

Many U.S. government agencies will be called on to find ways to grow, on federal land, plants that are more varied and better suited to bees and other pollinators.

Scientists say growing just one crop on a large stretch of land denies bees a source of food. The plan is based on an ��all hands on deck�� approach including engagement of citizens and communities and the forging of public-private partnerships. The measures are the culmination of an appeal launched by Obama in June 2014 to develop a federal a strategy to save the bees. But the White House was more measured in its references to the impact of insecticides. It said they played an important role in agriculture. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a moratorium on the use of pesticides called neonicotinoids until their risk to bees can be assessed fully. The European Union has banned three major classes of neonicotinoids, which allegedly kill bees. Environmental groups welcomed the White House plan but said it did not go far enough, especially with regard to cutting pesticide use.