Photograph by Amy Toensing, National Geographic
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Beekeepers take care of honeybees in a peach tree orchard. In 2010 the insects contributed to more than $19 billion worth of crops.

Photograph by Amy Toensing, National Geographic

Obama Unveils Plan to Reverse Alarming Decline of Honeybees

The White House released three goals for saving honeybees and other pollinators, which are crucial to the nation's economy. But money isn't enough, one expert says.

The White House announced a new plan for halting the precipitous decline in honeybees and other pollinators on Tuesday, winning praise from scientists and farmers worried about the collapse of bee colonies but also illustrating the difficulty of bringing back insects crucial for sustaining the food supply.

"The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment," U.S. President Barack Obama wrote in a memorandum announcing the plan. (Read "Quest for a Superbee" in National Geographic magazine.)

More than half of managed U.S. honeybee colonies have mysteriously disappeared in the past ten years. Honeybees pollinate a third of the U.S. diet, from nuts to produce—not to mention coffee and cotton. In 2010 the insects, originally from Eurasia and northern Africa, contributed to more than $19 billion worth of crops in the U.S. (Read more about the announcement on our food blog: "White House Puts Honey Where Its Mouth Is.")

Pesticides, fungicides, and viruses, among other factors, have contributed to the honeybees' decline. The seven known species of honeybee are vulnerable to parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite, which deforms their bodies and shortens their life spans. 

Scientists have also documented the decline of other insect pollinators, including various butterfly species, along with the charismatic monarch butterfly—though monarchs don't pollinate plants. The loss of this broad spectrum of insect pollinators has led to a looming environmental and economic crisis for the U.S. (See "As Honeybees Die Off, First Inventory of Wild Bees Is Under Way.")

Honeybee Metamorphosis

From tiny hatching eggs to quivering pupae to hair-sprouting adults, worker honeybees develop at lightning speed thanks to a time-lapse video of 2,500 images.

Amid ongoing worries about the loss of honeybees and other pollinators, in 2014 President Obama created the interagency Pollinator Health Task Force.

The new 64-page report from the task force outlines three keys to saving bees and other pollinators: Reducing honeybee losses during the winter—when they're most vulnerable—increasing monarch butterfly numbers, and setting aside federal land to preserve valuable habitat for all pollinators.

Sam Droege, a honeybee expert at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, adds the new report is "one of the most exciting things I've ever seen." (Related: "Dying Bees Spell Trouble for U.S. Agriculture.")

"I don't think a President has ever made any kind of proclamation or statement about an insect before, pest or otherwise. It really shows how far we have come as a society," says Droege. "It really shows how far we have come as a society."

"Not Going to Be Easy"

Droege praised Obama for providing much needed funds to address the issue, but also voiced words of caution.

The biggest roadblock to preserving bee species isn't money, he says, but how little we know about what species are out there.

North America has around 4,000 bee species, and one-tenth of those don't even have names yet. Nor do scientists know exactly what all of these species do. 

"We need to start by identifying the little beasties," Droege said. "The reason there are 4,000 different species is that they're doing 4,000 different things."

Lori Ann Burd, director of the Environmental Health program at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the new report is a step in the right direction, but that it "fails to adequately address the harm caused by pesticides."

"Countless studies have already found that pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoid insecticides, are a leading cause of pollinator declines," she said in a statement.

"Our bees can't wait for more reports and evaluations. We need to save them by banning neonicotinoids, and especially neonicotinoid seed treatments, right now." (See "Second Silent Spring? Bird Declines Linked to Popular Pesticides.")

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Honeybees are vulnerable to parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite (pictured at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab in Maryland). The mite deforms their bodies and shortens their life span.

Two of the  task force's three goals seem straightforward: increasing monarch butterfly populations and habitat, and setting aside federal lands for habitat protection. But the third, reducing wintertime bee losses, could  be much more difficult.

That will require a "grand experiment" of trying different approaches for different species, Droege says, and might include changing one species of honeybee's diet during the winter to see if that reduces deaths. (Related: "The Plight of the Honeybee.")

"You can't replace bees with a microrobot or an iPod or an app or anything," Droege said. We are completely dependent on bugs to retain the human race."

"None of these three strategies are impossible, but they're not going to be easy."

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