Photography by Maria Stenzel, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A honeybee gathers pollen from a chicory bloom.
Photography by Maria Stenzel, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

White House Puts Honey Where Its Mouth Is

Bees are big business, an irreplaceable $15 billion economic resource that the government must protect using research, rooftop hives, and international cooperation. So says the committee tasked by President Barack Obama with promoting the health of all pollinator animals, as a vital part of our food system.

By releasing the Pollinator Research Action Plan Tuesday, President Obama gave credibility to the formerly niche issue of Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious worldwide decline in the honeybee population. He started down this road just by creating a task force to look at it a year ago.

The report identifies three goals for pollinator health: stem the global bee population loss, increase the number of monarch butterflies, and provide land for all pollinators to thrive.(For more on the broader goals, see Obama Unveils Plan to Reverse Alarming Decline of Honeybees.)

It does not, to the dismay of many activists, recommend banning pesticides known as neonicotinoids that some studies have linked to pollinator death. Instead, funding for research targeted at pesticides’ impact on pollinator health is proposed.

Despite the outcry, the report is focused on economic impacts as well as environmental repercussions, and how the two are entwined, so it can be taken seriously by both the farming and political community. A flat-out recommendation to ban widely used pesticides would have led many to dismiss the task force as academic pipe dreamers who had never farmed or thought about producing food on a large scale but are frivolously concerned with tiny pesky animals. (As it is, one headline reads: No New Plan for ISIL, but Obama Personally Invested in Saving the Bees.)

Let’s step back for a minute to recall the surprise a year ago that Obama would even assemble a Pollinator Health Task Force. For years, scientists had warned that honeybees were declining rapidly, and thier disappearance was threatening crops that depend on pollination by bees who fly from plant to plant collecting nectar to make honey, but it was not widely seen as a pressing food-shortage crisis.

But the simple fact is that no bees equal far less pollination and a lot less food. About a third of our farmed crops depend on this animal of pollination.

No bees also mean a lot less crop diversity, as pollinators naturally carry pollen between plants and create greater genetic variations. Genetic variety makes it more likely that plants will adapt to swings in growing conditions (like climate change) naturally, rather than relying solely on humans genetically-modifying plants to withstand drought or extreme heat.

But pollinators are also political because no one is quite sure why they are disappearing: toxic pesticide use, or cell phone frequencies, hive conditions, or just regular-old bee diseases? So protecting them has been a challenge.

Bees and butterflies are known to flagrantly ignore national borders, so more leadership is needed to get some treaties worked out to extend pollinator protection. The report calls for international cooperation, especially as the monarch butterflies migrate through North America to Mexico. The report also advocates keeping bees on rooftops wherever possible (although recently concerns emerged in London that as urban bees get trendy, there aren’t enough nectar-rich plants to go around.)

On the technology side, researchers are developing Robobees and superbees, just in case.