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Pollinator Health Task Force Issues National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators
Posted on May 19, 2015 by Lisa M. Campbell

By Lisa M. Campbell and James V. Aidala

On May 19 2015, President Obama’s interagency Pollinator Health Task Force -- co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- issued its long awaited and anticipated “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators,” as well as its “Pollinator Research Action Plan.”  This work was done in response to President Obama’s June 20, 2014, memorandum entitled “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators,” pursuant to which the Pollinator Health Task Force was formed and direction was given to develop a Pollinator Research Action Plan, Public Education Plan, and Public-Private Partnerships, and to identify steps the agency Task Force members will take to increase and improve pollinator habitat.  All of these are addressed in the May 19, 2015, documents.

Notable issues are raised by the documents, and some of these are outlined below in the Commentary section of this blog, following the overview.  A more detailed discussion will be forthcoming.

Overview

The Strategy states that it “expands and adds to actions already being undertaken by Federal departments and agencies to reverse pollinator losses and restore populations to healthy levels.”  It further states that it “focuses on both immediate and long-term changes that can be made to improve the well-being of pollinator populations.”

The Strategy includes the following components:

  • Pollinator Research Action Plan;
  • Plans for expanding education and outreach;
  • Opportunities for public-private partnerships; and
  • Improving pollinator habitat.

The Strategy outlines “three overarching goals for action by Federal departments and agencies in collaboration with public and private partners”:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter (overwintering mortality) to no more than 15% within 10 years. This goal is informed by the previously released Bee Informed Partnership surveys and the newly established quarterly and annual surveys by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.  Based on the robust data anticipated from the national, statistically-based NASS surveys of beekeepers, the Task Force will develop baseline data and additional goal metrics for winter, summer, and total annual colony loss.
  2. Increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies occupying an area of approximately 15 acres (6 hectares) in the overwintering grounds in Mexico, through domestic/international actions and public-private partnerships, by 2020.
  3. Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years through Federal actions and public-private partnerships.

 

With regard to pesticides, the Strategy states the following “metrics” for Protecting Pollinators from Exposure to Pesticides:

  • Tiered guidance for assessing the risk posed by pesticides to bees was completed in 2014 (in collaboration with Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)).
  • Document the number and percentage of registration and registration review chemicals required to submit testing data at each Tier of the above guidance.
  • Complete all honey bee exposure and effect protocols and implement the harmonized pollinator risk assessment process by the end of 2016.
  • Achieve conformance with the 2015-2017 re-evaluation schedule of the nitroguanidine-substituted neonicotinoid subclass to satisfy the standard for registration under FIFRA.
  • Finalize benefits assessments for imidacloprid and thiamethoxam soybean seed treatments by fall 2015.
  • Provide annual updates on the number of pesticides for which the new framework for assessing risks to bees has been incorporated. Document the number of labels that contain pollinator-specific mitigation measures.
  • Issue for public comment a proposed prohibition on foliar application during contracted pollinator services by December 2015.
  • Issue for public comment a draft framework outlining an approach to protect monarch butterflies that balances monarch protection and weed management by summer 2015.
  • Document the number of state/tribal pollinator protection plans addressing the need for improved communication between growers/applicators and beekeepers with respect to pesticide applications under development and the number of plans implemented.
  • Bee mortality incident guidance was issued May 9, 2013; EPA will report annually on the number of reported mortality incidents, cumulative hive mortality, and results of inspections.
  • Document the time required to evaluate proposed new Varroa control products.
  • Document the number of Varroacide products available for use.

 

Commentary

The May 19 documents are lengthy and only a few highlights are mentioned.  A more detailed review of the documents will be forthcoming, but some initial comments are worthy of note.  These include the fact that the Strategy is a catalog of agency activities across the federal government.  Like the President’s 2014 memorandum, the emphasis is on enhancing and expanding habitat and forage opportunities for pollinators, especially honey bees.  The three strategic goals are repeated often:  reduce honey bee colony losses, protect monarch butterflies, and increase pollinator habitat acreage.  What is more pronounced in the Strategy when compared to the 2014 directive from the President is an emphasis on the monarch butterfly.  Though mentioned in the President’s memorandum, protecting the monarch butterfly is now among the three central, overarching goals of the Strategy.

The catalog of agencies involved varies widely from the obvious (EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Department of Interior) to the less obvious (Department of State (DOS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency).  The Strategy thus discusses everything from adding millions of dollars for more research by USDA to planting a pollinator-friendly garden on the roof of DOS.  Much of the agenda is an extension of current programs (incentives in the Conservation Reserve Program, accelerated pesticide reviews), along with what may be some new initiatives (Department of Transportation initiatives along Interstate 35, as it is along the migration path of the monarch butterfly).

Regarding pesticides, many items addressed in the response have been anticipated or otherwise discussed by EPA staff in various settings over the last few months.  EPA announced that it will impose a number of new restrictions and conditions on the application of neonic insecticides where the grower who will apply the pesticides has contracted for pollination services.  This will especially apply to the almond pollination situation, but is not limited to that case.  It also means that even if the person applying the pesticide is contracting for pollination services and has permission from the beekeeper to apply the pesticide outside of the new limitations, doing so may be a violation of the pertinent product label.

For products applied by growers who are not using commercial pollination, the essence of the pollinator protection requirements will be in compliance with a state management plan (known as a Pollinator Protection Plan (P3)).  Some states already have plans, many are under development.  EPA has signaled that it expects state plans to incorporate three core ideas: public participation in developing the plan, some kind of notification scheme to alert beekeepers of insecticide applications, and a way to evaluate whether the state plan is effective in reducing insecticide exposure to bees.

EPA states that this scheme may be applied to more insecticides than simply neonicotinoid products, and that evaluation would be part of the registration review process for other insecticides.  EPA cites its recent correspondence to registrants of the neonicotinoids that no new formulations of products will be processed until more data on possible effects have been submitted and evaluated.

EPA also states that it will continue the benefits assessment of the neonicotinoid products, but has a milder tone when referring to the exercise than when it released its soybean seed treatment benefits memorandum last October.  EPA now describes its rationale for doing the soybean assessment as being essentially “because some scientific publications" stated they have “little value” -- in contrast to some of the rhetoric EPA used in October effectively concluding that there is no benefit from their use.

The most novel element of the EPA response may be the description of actions to “mitigate pesticide impacts on monarch butterflies.”  The document hints at field restrictions and what may be refugia-like requirements, even though these are not genetically modified organism products.  To some degree, this concept presents some novel policy and regulatory issues, since it would represent attempts to regulate use of a pesticide outside the site of application of the pesticide -- and insist on maintenance of some weed species otherwise intended to be controlled.  It could also portend some scheme for protection of endangered species from a pesticide’s use, although the monarch is not (yet) listed as threatened or endangered.

EPA states it will issue a draft strategy for protecting the monarch butterfly for comment in summer 2015.

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