Agriculture Department Cuts Program Tracking Bee Declines

July 10, 2019, 2:43 PM

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is suspending the only federal program that tracked honeybee losses, which could make it more difficult to understand declines in bee health and the subsequent impact on food production.

“The decision to suspend data collection was not made lightly, but was necessary given available fiscal and program resources,” USDA said in a statement about its decision to stop collecting data for the annual Honeybee Colonies report.

Commercially managed honeybee colonies are used by farmers to pollinate a variety of fruit, nut, and vegetable crops. Some agricultural economists estimate that as much as one in three bites of food we eat is dependent on bees for pollination.

The die-off rates for commercially managed honeybee colonies has increased sharply in recent years due to various factors, including pesticides, parasite infestations, and habitat loss.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) announced on July 1 that it will stop collecting data for the report, which was a key priority of the Obama administration.

Bad News for Researchers

“It’s really frustrating,” Kari Segraves, a professor of biology at Syracuse University who studies plant-pollinator interactions, said about the decision to stop the surveys.

“I understand these surveys can be time consuming and expensive,” she said, “but having it [the data] is also so important if we’re going to have a chance to answer these big questions about what’s going on with pollinators in our environment.”

Last month researchers from a nonprofit led by the University of Maryland reported that losses for honeybees over the winter were the highest they’ve been in 13 years.

In recent years, issues relating to pollinator health have gained more traction in Congress. The 2018 Farm Bill established a new position within the USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist for a “Honeybee and Pollinator Research Coordinator.”

While the Farm Bill does not specifically mandate the Honeybee Colonies Survey, the decision to cancel it “certainly is counter to the overall intent and will impede efforts to understand honey bee populations,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“I think it will be harder to coordinate research on honeybees if we do not have these surveys.”

Pollinators and Pesticides

The decision by USDA is the second move in recent weeks involving federal policy and its impact on bee population research.

On June 16, the Environmental Protection Agency announced “emergency exemptions” under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act allowing farmers to spray sulfoxaflor—a bee-killing insecticide—on millions of acres of sorghum and cotton across 14 states.

The EPA said the exemption was necessary to control sugarcane aphids and tarnished plant bugs.

The move drew immediate pushback from environmental groups who say such exemptions are simply a way to skirt the enforcement of pollinator protections.

“The only emergency here is the Trump EPA’s reckless approval of this dangerous bee-killing pesticide,” Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “It’s sickening that even amid the current insect apocalypse, the EPA’s priority is protecting pesticide industry profits.”

A 2015 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit revoked the registration of sulfoxaflor, made by Dow Agrosciences (now Corteva). Following the ruling, EPA amended the product’s label to restrict its use on crops attractive to bees, which include cotton and sorghum.

In a statement released at the time, the National Sorghum Producers downplayed the impact of the pesticide on bees.

The group cited the EPA’s assessment of the chemical, taken before President Donald Trump took office, which stated that “sulfoxaflor clearly is a better compound for non-target organisms than nearly all of its alternatives,” and “poses little risk to fresh or saltwater fish and invertebrates.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Allington in Washington at aallington@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Steven Gibb at sgibb@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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