Agriculture awaits start of new pollinator strategy for honeybees
When consigning blame for poor honeybee health, pesticides make for an easy scapegoat. However, the release of the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators points to a complex set of factors far beyond chemicals. The federal report, released in May, relies on a wealth of science to set up a national strategy for pollinator health.
Executive strategy in the report sets up three main goals. First, reduce honeybee colony loss during winter to below 15% within 10 years. Second, increase the eastern population of monarch butterflies occupying 15 acres in the overwintering grounds of Mexico to 225 million by 2020. Third, restore and enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinator habitat over the next five years.
“Headlines definitely affect the issue. The plain truth? There are multiple issues affecting pollinators and particularly honeybee health,” says Don Parker, integrated pest management program manager, National Cotton Council.
Don Parker, integrated pest management program manager, National Cotton Council, says the report’s implementation will result in distinct roles for government agencies: boost forage on government lands, improve pollinator habitat on CRP and up research responsibilities.
As expected, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) involvement centers on pesticides. After the national strategy was issued, EPA released a proposal calling for restriction of acutely toxic pesticide products during blooming for crops contracting pollination services. Yet, those commodities don’t have an option in case of a pest outbreak. Restrictions also hogtie producers who grow indeterminate blooming crops for a long season.
“EPA is also encouraging state pollinator plans to bring beekeeper and pesticide applicators into one group,” Parker says. “Local people understanding a local situation. Otherwise, it’s hard to know what’s best on a farm. For example, application at night while bees are in the hive may work in vegetables, but it won’t work for a farmer with 3,000 acres of row crops.”
A decrease in monarch butterfly numbers has attracted increased attention associated with herbicides. Monarchs overwinter in Mexico and migrate up through North America, with caterpillars feeding on milkweed. Many issues surround monarch populations—from deforestation in Mexico to drought in the migration path—but the main focus is on milkweeds.
“EPA believes it’s in their authority to protect milkweed, and that raises concerns from a legal and regulatory aspect,” Parker explains. “Does that mean EPA will change label regulations that keep a producer’s ability to keep a crop clean?”
Multiple factors affecting pollinators don’t make for good press, Parker adds. “Headlines definitely affect the issue. The plain truth? There are multiple issues affecting pollinators, particularly honeybee health: varroa mite, management issues, habitat issues related to forage loss—a combination of factors at once.”
The varroa mite is the biggest natural threat to honeybees, says Lanie Bourgeois, USDA–Agricultural Research Service molecular biologist, honeybee breeding, genetics and physiology research, Baton Rouge, La.
Over years of selective breeding, Bourgeois and her lab colleagues have bred varroa-resistant bees and released those lines to the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association that commercially produces bees. Bourgeois is currently breeding honeybees for enhanced resistance to Nosema, a parasite fungus that attacks as a secondary infection. She hopes resistant bees will be available in five to 10 years.
“Farming practices can also be modified to help bees,” Bourgeois says. “Modification of practices to ensure that crops aren’t sprayed when bees are out flying will go a long way.”
The pollinator industry is a vital part of agriculture. “The best hope is for beekeepers and producers to find solutions in a given community or region,” Parker says. “Productive agriculture viability is sitting on the table.”
By Chris Bennett and Ben Potter
Industry Efforts to Save the Bees
The average honeybee only lives five to six weeks, but the mighty insect pollinates an estimated $15 billion in U.S. crops each year, which can be linked to 70% of the human diet. This little bug is receiving big attention because its health has been put at risk by the frustratingly complex Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Here’s a sampling of the industry efforts focused on protecting the pollinators.
Bayer CropScience recently kicked off Healthy Hives 2020, an initiative for improving the health of honeybee colonies over the next five years. The initiative brings together a cross-section of bee-health stakeholders from multiple sectors, including academia, government, agriculture, business and the beekeeping community to address honeybee health issues. The company’s 6,000-sq.-ft. Bee Care Center also hosts a variety of research and education efforts.
More than 3,000 folks visited the new Bayer Bee Care Center in its first year for a chance to see bees firsthand and learn from the facility’s experts.
The fact Bayer produces some of the very neonicotinoid insecticides at the heart of the CCD controversy is not lost on the company. Part of the facility’s focus is education and stewardship. In many instances, farmers and beekeepers are already pairing up and sharing best practices with each other.
“It all comes down to communication,” says Dave Fischer, director of pollinator safety at the Bayer Bee Care Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “The farmer needs to know where the beekeepers have their hives, and the farmer needs to let the beekeepers know when they make applications in their fields.”
Communication outside the farming community is equally important, according to Bayer and other officials.
In March, Monsanto Company committed more than $4 million toward monarch butterfly research efforts, including $3.6 million for the National Fish and Wildlife Fund to restore habitat, increase awareness and boost milkweed plants. Beyond the funding, Monsanto is participating in habitat expansion, BMP development, web-based monitoring tools and construction of a private-public partnership.
DuPont Pioneer is heavily involved with a variety of conversation programs aimed at monarch habitat preservation, including Monarch Watch and the Youth Pollinator Habitat Program. The company is also developing prairie habitat at several U.S. locations that include multiple varieties of milkweed. With the construction of two science centers, the company is placing a focus on stewardship. As part of the Integrated Seed Science Network, the centers will play a key role in seed treatment technology.
For more than 12 years, Syngenta has run Operation Pollinator, a biodiversity program for increasing the number of pollinating insects. Seed mixes are tailored to local conditions and native insects, such as bees, butterflies and beneficials.
“I’m excited about the implementation phase,” says Caydee Savinelli, pollinator and integrated pest management stewardship lead, Syngenta. “That includes getting these pollinator sites with farmers, highway departments and golf courses.”